2010 UNESCO convention

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation. UNESCO has recently adopted a controversial Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This is essentially aimed at protecting the rights of individual nations to develop and maintain policies on cultural issues. Such rights are increasingly under threat from world trade agreements, which aim to limit any initiatives or incentives, which promote indigenous artists and indigenous cultural practices so as to make it easier for multi national entertainment corporations to compete. The Convention therefore protects the notion of state subsidy for artists and for industries such as television, film, music and publishing. The Americans who have led the campaign against this convention would see such state funding of the arts and culture as being counter to fair competition.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recently adopted a Convention aimed at protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions around the world.

You may wonder what this actually means and why it might be relevant to Irish artists?

The Convention essentially sets out to protect the rights of individual nations to adopt and maintain policies in relation to cultural issues. In particular the Convention protects right of nations to adopt cultural policies, which might be aimed at nurturing and encouraging indigenous artists and indigenous cultural practice.

The potential value of the UNESCO Convention should be seen in relation to the potentially negative effects of global trade agreements. These trade agreements increasingly put pressure on nations to liberalise trade and remove any barriers to competition and a free market economy.

The UNESCO Convention therefore protects the right of Ireland to offer tax breaks to those industries that invest in the making of films in Ireland. Ireland offers such tax breaks to filmmakers because it recognises the value that such investment brings to the film sector in Ireland. World trade agreements, however, might otherwise put pressure on Ireland to remove the scheme because it is unfair to American or other European film industries that cannot offer such incentives.

The UNESCO Convention is thereby a lifeline for many cultural producers and industries form smaller nations that are fighting to maintain their rights, identity and existence in the face of imported entertainment from multinational industries that are in effect spreading a homogenised global culture.

The UNESCO Convention was adopted in October 2005 and was voted in by an overwhelming margin of 148 in favour to only 2 against. The campaign against the convention was led unsurprisingly by the US who have consistently made very effort to disrupt or dilute the Convention.

While the Convention has been adopted by UNESCO it does not become a document that is binding or effective until it is ratified. To be ratified it means that at least 30 nations must individually sign up to the Convention.

Visual Artists Ireland is therefore campaigning to ensure that Ireland signs up to the Convention.

The Convention

The UNESCO Convention On The Protection And Promotion Of The Diversity Of Cultural Expressions was adopted on the 20th October 2005 at the 33rd General Conference, of the member states of UNESCO. It was voted in by an overwhelming margin of 148 in favour to only 2 against.

The drafting and adoption of this convention happened surprisingly quickly and followed an active campaign by the French and Canadians in favour of its adoption, as well as an equally aggressive campaign by the Americans to see it rejected.

This vote means that for the first time in the history of international law the distinctive nature of cultural goods and services is recognised in a convention—or treaty. The treaty also formally affirms the sovereign right of countries to have policies in favour of cultural diversity. And by recognising the right of countries to have cultural policies in international law, it provides a legal foundation for countries determined to keep culture out of trade agreements by refraining from liberalisation commitments on culture in negotiations at the WTO, or in bilateral or regional trade talks.

The main provisions of the Convention are that it –

  • Recognises in international law the distinctive nature of cultural goods and services as vehicles of values, identity and meaning.
  • Clearly affirms of the right of countries to have cultural policies to ensure genuine diversity of cultural expressions domestically.
  • Includes provisions by which developed countries undertake to support developing countries in nurturing the development of their own emerging cultural industries.
  • Asserts the principle of non-subordination—meaning the legal status of the convention in international law will be equal to that of other international treaties, including trade agreements.
  • Commits countries to take the provisions of the convention into account not only when entering into other international agreements, but also when applying and interpreting agreements to which they are party.
  • Includes a basic dispute settlement mechanism, creating the potential that in the years ahead the convention will accumulate a body of written decisions on issues of cultural policy that will ultimately influence how culture is treated in trade agreements.

The main issue of contention throughout the drafting of the convention was article 20, which deals with the relationship between the convention and other international agreements. This essentially boiled down to whether the treaty was superior to or inferior to other treaties.  The final wording is suitably vague and suggests that it should be seen as equal rather inferior or superior.

Article 20 reads:

“Article 20 – Relationship to other treaties; mutual supportiveness, complementary and non-subordination

Parties recognise that they shall perform in good faith their obligations under this Convention and all other treaties to which they are Parties. Accordingly, without subordinating this Convention to any other treaty they:

a)  Shall foster mutual supportiveness between this Convention and the other treaties to which they are parties; and

b)   When interpreting and applying the other treaties to which they are parties or when entering into other international obligations, Parties shall take into account the relevant provisions of this Convention.

Nothing in this Convention shall be interpreted as modifying rights and obligations of the Parties under any other treaties to which they are parties. ”

Download a full copy of the Convention here.

Our Position

The artists and industries that are most at risk from the trade liberalisation of cultural goods and services and thus those to whom the convention offers most protection are those connected with film, publishing, music etc. However there are much wider implications to the issue and Visual Artists Ireland fully recognises and supports the principles at the heart of the convention.

Visual Artists Ireland along with other Irish representative organisations became involved with this issue in September 2004. Our position has been to support the adoption of the convention in its strongest possible terms. The Convention has now been adopted and entered into force on 18 March 2007.

The Campaign

Who is leading the international campaign?

The campaign to firstly adopt and now to ratify the UNESCO convention was led by the International Liaison Committee of the Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (ILC-CCD). Basically a coalition of coalitions. The International Liaison Committee of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (ILC-CCD) was established in March 2003 to facilitate co-operation and the development of joint positions and actions.

The ILC-CCD brought together 28 coalitions representing some 400 cultural professional organisations from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Congo, Ecuador, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Senegal, Switzerland, Togo and Uruguay.

Within their countries, these coalitions represent the major cultural professional organisations from the sectors of books, film and television, music, live performance and visual arts. They include organisations representing actors, authors, composers, directors, musicians, technicians and visual artists as well as independent producers of film, television and music, publishers, broadcasters and distributors.

Each coalition is set up to focus exclusively on this issue. Some countries are more active than others. France and Canada are particularly active and their own Coalitions for Cultural Diversity jointly carry out the role of Secretariat for the ILC-CCD. They have also been responsible for encouraging and facilitating the setting up of coalitions in many of the countries listed above including Ireland. At the April 2004 meeting of UNESCO’s Executive Board, the ILC-CCD was accorded observer status for the convention development process.

Within Ireland

Visual Artists Ireland is part of the Irish Coalition for Cultural Diversity (ICCD). It consists of a very loose affiliation of organisations that also includes the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild, Theatre Forum, Film Base amongst others.

The Irish Coalition was initiated by the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland who facilitated a visit to Ireland by representatives of the French and Canadian Coalitions.

The Irish organisations met infrequently (3 – 4 occasions) to discuss what contribution can be made to this international issue through making representations to the Irish government.

The Irish Coalition was facilitated in its meetings by the Arts Council who provided space and administrative help for this initiative. The Arts Council also funded travel for representatives of Irish Coalition to attend international seminars that contributed to the drafting of the convention.

The Irish Campaign

Shortly after forming the Irish Coalition for Cultural Diversity, it was decided by all EU member states that responsibility for negotiating with UNESCO on the convention would be carried out by the EU Commission on behalf of all member states. This is somewhat ironic given the nature of the Convention. This also limited the ability of Coalitions within EU states to put pressure on their own states to support the Convention. The Irish Coalition, however, met with the Department of Arts Sport and Tourism and has made submissions to the Department expressing its support for the full adoption and ratification of the Convention.