Swiss hail Unesco pact on cultural diversity

The US feared the cultural diversity pact would damage its export of films and music. imagepoint

The Swiss ambassador to Unesco, Ernst Iten, gives swissinfo his verdict on the contentious 33rd Unesco General Conference, which ended on Friday.

This content was published on October 21, 2005 - 16:00

Unesco delegates overwhelmingly approved a pact to protect cultural diversity after a bitter debate left the United States and Israel isolated in opposition.

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions recognises the specific nature of cultural goods and services, gives the right for parties to take measures for cultural diversity, and confirms the importance of culture for development.

Delegates voted 148-2 to approve the pact with four abstentions. The United States and Israel opposed it.

The US said the "deeply flawed" convention could result in trade barriers against cultural exports such as films and pop music and also indirectly restrict free speech.

The 191 member states at Unesco's headquarters in Paris also agreed on a declaration on bioethics and a convention against doping in sports.

swissinfo: How successful has the general conference been?

Ernst Iten: In the 60 years of Unesco's existence there have never been so many ministers and heads of state. There were eight heads of state and close to 200 ministers.

We are very satisfied with the agreements that have been reached, especially the one across all the headlines on cultural diversity.

swissinfo: The Americans proposed 28 amendments to the cultural diversity draft but all were rejected. Did differences of opinion lead to it being watered down?

E.I.: There were no changes to what had been concluded at the third intergovernmental group of experts in June. The reason was very clear: if we started making changes, the risk was that the whole process would be reopened and we would never have come to an agreement now.

swissinfo: Did the opposition of the US and Israel make for a bad atmosphere?

E.I.: I wouldn't say it was a bad atmosphere. I think everyone agreed on the spirit of cultural diversity. The question is the means – and there opinions were divided.

The US and Israel were opposed to the convention that was eventually found. We also consider it a compromise, but we think it is a balanced compromise.

swissinfo: Could you understand the American position?

E.I.: Each country has its own interpretation on whether it can adhere to a compromise or not. Apparently the Americans couldn't.

swissinfo: Switzerland was very keen to see the convention adopted. As Swiss ambassador, what role did you play at the conference?

E.I.: We were very active from the beginning in the elaboration of this convention. I would underline one thing in particular: the relationship of this convention with other international treaties.

We quickly saw that there were two opinions: one was that this convention should be above other conventions; the other was that it should not have the same status as other conventions.

We thought a third position was necessary, so we brought in what is now expressed in Article 20. This concerns what we call mutual supportiveness, complementarity and non-subordination.

swissinfo: What do you expect to happen as a result of this agreement?

E.I.: The meaning of cultural diversity is now entering into international law. It will have a different binding character for those who adhere to the convention and those who don't, but in general I think for the first time cultural diversity is a subject of international law similar to the one we have on biodiversity.

We will now see which states ratify it and how quickly. Switzerland is very keen to do it as quickly as possible.

swissinfo-interview: Thomas Stephens

Key facts

The 33rd general conference of Unesco took place in Paris from October 3-21.
Some 2,000 delegates from 191 member states attended.
Unesco is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
The US rejoined Unesco in 2003 after a 19-year absence.

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In brief

Three projects dominated Unesco's 33rd General Conference: The cultural diversity convention, the international convention against doping in sport and the declaration on universal norms in bioethics.

Delegates voted 148-2 to approve the cultural diversity pact with four abstentions. The United States and Israel opposed it.

The convention becomes binding three months after at least 30 countries have ratified it.

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