Janet Blake
Senior Lecturer in Law, Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran

Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage has always been an important issue for the large majority of countries and their citizens, long before the 2003 Convention was adopted. However, this was not formally recognized internationally, and a cultural heritage protection paradigm that prioritized monumental and prestigious heritage over local and indigenous cultural forms dominated. The experience of countries that are party to the 2003 Convention clearly demonstrates that ICH in all its various and diverse forms is a rich social, economic, and even political resource for sustainable development.

The International Policy Context

Greater value was accorded to local and ethnic cultures with the emergence of the ‘endogenous development’ model in Africa and Latin America in the 1970s while the adoption of the Declaration of the World Conference on Cultural Policies in 1982 represented an important milestone in recognizing intangible aspects of heritage: for the first time, culture was seen as a broad notion encompassing ways of life, social organization, and value/belief systems as well as material culture. This was followed by important new thinking in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, with the introduction of sustainable development₁ and human development₂ approaches and the publication of the Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development (1995).₃ Increasingly, the value of local and indigenous cultures and their heritage within the wider society and as a resource for its overall development became better understood. Importantly, each of these approaches also has strong human rights aspects, emphasizing human capacities (supported by rights), and social justice and cultural rights (for long the ‘Cinderella’ of the human rights family) also began to receive belated attention internationally at this time.₄

The Legal Context

A paradigm shift was also occurring within UNESCO’s cultural heritage treaty-making, from protecting material elements to celebrating nonmaterial and even mundane cultural expressions. For example, the Operational Guidelines to the 1972 World Heritage Convention underwent several revisions between 1992 and 2005 that increasingly allowed for associated intangible elements as inscription criteria as well as greater input from local communities in designing and implementing management plans. Also, UNESCO and WIPO had been working since the 1970s to develop a joint approach to protecting traditional cultures and their expressions through intellectual property rules, but from the mid-1980s, UNESCO began to explore a broader ‘cultural’ approach that led to the adoption of the 1989 Recommendation on Traditional Culture and Folklore and the 2003 ICH Convention. Many of these changes in UNESCO’s normative work in cultural heritage have been in response to calls from non-western, developing states who felt their heritage was insufficiently reflected in existing treaty frameworks, especially the World Heritage List,₅ and to move away from the Eurocentric emphasis on monumental and prestigious heritage.₆

In this process, we can see also that the responsibility for identifying and safeguarding/ managing cultural heritage has shifted gradually (albeit only slightly) from a purely state -driven operation to one that allows for greater involvement of local cultural communities and groups.₇ Moreover, the role of the state in heritage protection vis-à-vis local (minority) communities and the private sector will have to be redefined, and new cultural policies will have to be put in place over time. Moving cultural communities closer to the centre of safeguarding and managing cultural heritage, reducing the role of the state in identifying heritage, and recognizing the importance of trans-national forms of heritage are all part of this wider process to which the 2003 Convention can make an important contribution. Since the States Parties are implementing the Convention within a great variety of contexts—with different social realities and geographical and environmental factors—their responses to these are varied and may have the potential to offer innovative solutions to contemporary social and cultural challenges.

  1. First formally recognized in the Declaration of UNCED (‘Rio Declaration’) in 1992. One of three ‘pillars’ of sustainable development is understood to be socio-cultural.
  2. Developed by Amartya Sen, this approach was adopted by UNDP for its Human Development Reports series from 1990. See also, more generally: UNESCO (2000) Change in Continuity–Concepts and Tools for a Cultural Approach to Development, Paris: UNESCO.
  3. The Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, Our Creative Diversity, was presented at UNESCO General Conference in 1995.
  4. In UNESCO, this led to the adoption of the 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. It took, however, until 2007 for the UN General Assembly to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  5. Expressed in calls for greater geographic representativeness of the List.
  6. In some countries, especially in Africa, ICH can constitute as much as 70 to 80 percent of its important cultural heritage.
  7. Both in the operation of the 1972 Convention and the approach taken by the 2003 Convention.