Do we need an International Cenvention on Cultural Diversity

By Robyn Ayres on 30th June 2003

Around the world there is growing support for the creation of an International Convention on Cultural Diversity. Artists and arts organisations are becoming more and more aware of the impact of globalisation on their countries’ economies and the pressure that governments are under to make increasing commitments, including in the area of culture, in international trade negotiations (eg in Free Trade Agreements and GATS). The problem is that the cultural industries of most countries cannot compete against the market dominance of huge American interests without specific and targeted support of local culture. The potential is that Australia, along with many other countries, could end up with a cultural product, particularly in the audio-visual area, that is primarily American.

New Zealand’s experience is useful to illustrate the present and future dangers of making free trade commitments in relation to culture. In the last GATS round New Zealand was one of only 11 countries, out a total of 148, which made commitments to open up its markets to free trade. The current Prime Minister of New Zealand has expressed the view that some of those commitments were a mistake (made by the previous government) and the government is now trying to negotiate voluntary quotas for local content on NZ television. If New Zealand were to introduce mandatory local content quotas, as we have in Australia, it would be at risk of retaliatory action from other countries within the World Trade Organisation. New Zealand has lost the right to make its own policies in this area.

It is because of experiences like this, that arts professionals and arts communities, have seen the need to counter the free trade roller coaster by establishing a legally binding agreement which would allow countries to develop their own cultural policies free from such external constraints.

In response to these sorts of concerns, the International Network for Cultural Diversity (INCD) was formed in 2000. It now represents artists and non-government cultural organisations from about 70 countries. A parallel network of cultural ministers, which has membership of 53 countries, was also formed. It is called the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP) and the member countries include United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and countries from Asia, South America and Europe. Australia is not yet a member.

Both of these networks (the INCD and the INCP) have been working towards developing an International Convention that will provide a permanent legal foundation.  This will enable governments to implement measures that promote cultural diversity (both within a country and amongst countries) and allow governments to set their own cultural policies.  INCD and INCP each envisage that the Convention would have the function of promoting cultural diversity, especially by giving governments the freedom and flexibility to support domestic and foreign culture.

Other issues that the Convention is likely to address include:

  • Recognition that cultural goods and services are more than conventional commodities, and are a unique and integral part of human societies;
  • Recognition that market forces alone cannot guarantee diverse cultural expression at a national and international level and that public policy is vital to achieving this goal;
  • Provision of opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and recognition of how enriching this can be;
  • Measures for the recognition and preservation of the cultures of Indigenous peoples and other traditional cultures.

In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity which recommended establishing such an agreement. The Declaration by itself is not enough, as it cannot be enforced and does not provide a counter balance to the enforceable provisions of the international trade agreements.  In February 2003, a group of cultural ministers met with the Director General of UNESCO urging UNESCO taking up responsibility for the development of such an instrument. In October this year the 188 countries that make up UNESCO’s General Conference will decide whether UNESCO should proceed with the development of the International Convention.  Arts Law urges the Australian government to positively support the development of the convention.

Further information about the work that is being done to develop an International Convention on Cultural Diversity and other international trade issues affecting the arts can be found at the following websites:

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