Monday, March 29, 2010

Thinking about UNESCO's Culture Program

Herdis Hølleland, in her blog Sites of Transformations, has a posting on the World Heritage Site of the City of Potosi in Bolivia. The mines of Bolivia, and especially the silver mines of Potosi produced wealth that fueled much of history in the past half millennium, not only in South America but also in Europe. Those mines have also exploited labor -- in the past and now -- in an exceptionally brutal way. Young men entering the mines for the first time have a life expectancy of some 20 years due to the harsh conditions in which they will work. Helleland writes of the Potosi world heritage site:
(I)t is a site where the past and present meet – as a tourist destination it is not only a historic city, but a site reminding visitors of history gone wrong. While historically it might fit well into the framework of ‘World Heritage’, its present state is perhaps not the picture perfect for UNESCO’s overall values and goals.
Why do nation's seek World Heritage status for their sites? What is the value attached to the designation? In part it is financial, as World Heritage sites draw tourists who bring money, and for poor countries the status allows the countries to compete for grant funding for maintenance and restoration of their sites. The designation also confers prestige, and it is easy to imagine that some of that prestige indirectly benefits those governing the country.

In short, I suggest that UNESCO by conferring World Heritage status on a site within a country indirectly supports the regime governing that country.

The decision to confer World Heritage status on a site is made by the World Heritage Committee, elected by the World Heritage General Assembly. Sites are nominated by member states and the nominations are reviewed by technical advisory bodies, but their technical recommendations can be and sometimes are overridden by the political bodies. Indeed, the strategy of the World Heritage program is explicitly to add sites from developing nations to "correct" a perceived bias in the early decades of the Center towards recognition of sites in Europe.

Helleland has raised the question as to whether the designation of the City of Potosi is consistent with UNESCO's mission. That question can be extended to the entire list, which currently includes 890 sites. Is the process of selection one that helps to preserve sites which truly merit the designation of World Heritage and to educate people everywhere about the common heritage of mankind, or is its politicization such as to support governments -- some of which may not merit such support? Should World Heritage status be denied to sites within countries in which governments do not respect and protect the human rights of their citizens and visitors?

More Generally About UNESCO and World Heritage

The following is the list of treaties created by UNESCO dealing with cultural heritage, with the dates on which they were signed:
  • Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, 14 May 1954
  • Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 14 November 1970
  • Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 16 November 1972
  • Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, 2 November 2001
  • Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 17 October 2003
  • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, 20 October 2005
Recall that during World War II, the Nazi invaders appropriated the movable cultural treasures of the regions that they conquered, removing them to Germany. This was certainly not a new nor a unique event, but it is understandable that the founders of UNESCO in the aftermath of the war sought to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Three of these conventions were created in the first 55 years of UNESCO's existence, and three more were created in the last decade.

The first two conventions appear to protect against the theft of cultural objects, the second pair to recognize and protect archaeological sites, monuments and natural sites of cultural importance, and the third pair to recognize intangible cultural heritage. Note that the protection provided in the third pair is not against the copying of forms such as music or dance (as is done in the earlier copyright conventions), but rather to preserve them from being discarded in favor of new (and imported) forms.

What we see here is a significant "mission creep". The member states of UNESCO have chosen to broaden the protections offered by its treaties from objects, to sites, to the intangible.

The process by its nature has been intensely political. Consequently, one may question the motives of the government parties to the new conventions. Which governments benefited from the mission creep? Was the expansion of the Organization's mission in protection of cultural heritage consistent with its larger mission of "building the defenses of peace in the minds of men," or indeed could the implementation of the protections provided by the new conventions by an intensely political process be destructive to that mission?

More Generally Still, About UNESCO's Cultural Program

I suggest that UNESCO was created to promote certain cultural changes, and that the promotion of cultural change remains central to UNESCO's mission. The two world wars could and must be seen as the result of the cultures of the peoples involved in those wars. UNESCO was created to change the way people think -- to make changes that would make war less and less likely. It was to produce cultures of more educated and thoughtful peoples who better understood each other and who would be less and less likely allow their governments to undertake wars of aggression and conquest.

From its inception, UNESCO had seen promotion of respect for human rights as fundamental to its mission. This too implies that UNESCO sought to change cultures so that peoples would be more likely to protect the human rights of their own members and the members of other nations.

When UNESCO was founded, the word "culture" in its title was generally interpreted in the sense of what we now tend to term "high culture" -- the best in the cultural products such as great art, literature and music. It was thought that greater dissemination of these products and greater appreciation for the best cultural products of other peoples would tend to reduce the willingness to war.

We now more frequently use the word "culture" in the sense it is used by the social sciences, implying the "integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior". Indeed we define a people as a group largely sharing the most important elements of a common culture, It is in this sense that UNESCO's mission is to change the knowledge, beliefs and behavior of peoples in such ways as to promote peace and prevent war and conflict. Cultural exchanges, in the earlier meaning of the term "culture", can be an important vehicle for promoting such cultural change.

This raises the issue as to whether UNESCO in seeking to conserve intangible culture and to promote the diversity of cultural expression is in conflict with the primary mission of UNESCO, which is to promote cultural changes that will make the world more peaceful and humane.

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