The “nominations war” live and webcasted

Report of the Fifth Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Nairobi 15-19 November 2010)

Chiara Bortolotto and Marta Severo

On the 16th of November 1946 the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was adopted in London. The opening sentence of this constitution was to be cited in the following decades as the Unesco hymn « since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed ». (watch the video).

On the 65th anniversary of this funding act, the 16th of November 2010, the Fifth Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is at its second day meeting in Nairobi and the debate is very animated. In his speech, the delegate of Turkey regrets that a war issue is at stake: that of nominations (« la guerre des dossiers »). He points out that this is indeed in contradiction with the founding values of the Organization established following WWII.
The casus belli is a letter sent to the Unesco secretariat (and to the Greek National Commission for Unesco) by an association based in Crete. This letter argues against the nomination of the Mediterranean diet, which, according to the association, doesn’t really exist. Apparently, such letter has not been transmitted in due time to the Committee members nor to the States submitting this nomination (except Greece) and from the juridical point of view it can not have any influence on the decisions of the Committee. Despite the embarrassment produced by this letter and the concern expressed by some delegations about the possible commercial use of the ICH logo in the case of nomination of culinary practices, the Mediterranean diet (as well as the the gastronomic meal of the French and the traditional Mexican cuisine) is inscribed on the Representative List without any official objection by the Committee.
Nonetheless this letter opens the Pandora’s box of civil society participation in the recognition of Intangible Cultural Heritage and particularly in the submission of nominations. The principle of participation of communities in the safeguarding of ICH is established by the 2003 Unesco Convention. More concretely, the criteria for inscription on the international Lists imply that States who submit nominations give voice to the bearers of ICH. While this participation is handled through a series of official procedures officially adopted by Unesco (such as the nomination forms for inscription on the international Lists), the secretariat has no clear rules to treat spontaneous and unstructured contributions from civil society, such as… letters.

Would the remarks of the Cretan association be more easily acceptable if they had expressed themselves in the Forum on the Contribution of Civil Society and NGOs to the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and to the Rapprochement of Cultures, held just before the Committee or used the facebook group created by the Unesco secretariat as an “open platform where communities, organizations, institutions and individuals interested in the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) can share information”?

While Unesco and Member States are in an uncomfortable position when civil society tries to express its opinion using the oldest means of communication (but not complying to the established procedures), the Organisation introduces new means of virtual participation such as the webcast. For the first time in the history of the ICH convention, it is possible to follow the discussion of the Committee through the Web. During the first two days of the meeting the website of Unesco provided both the video- and audio-casts of the event in multiple languages. On the third day, because of technical problems, only the streaming audio is available. Even if the connectionis often interrupted, even if the quality is not perfect, anyone can follow all the interventions of State parties in real time and from any place in the world. This technical innovation has two important consequences for the civil society.
First, everyone can assist to the meeting of the Committee. Until now, even if the rules of procedure of the Committee state that “Public meetings of the Committee shall be open to the public” (8.5), the participation of the public and the communities was hindered by financial and logistical problems. Participants to the Committee were almost exclusively delegations and invited or authorized observers and their names were listed so that the Committee could know exactly who was assisting to the meeting. This year, the Committee will have little clue of the actual extension of public of the meeting.
Second innovation: anyone can access to the complete information, that is to say not only the decisions but also the discussions; not only the result of the meeting, but also its ongoing process. This constitutes an unprecedented effort of opening. Through the webcast, the public can learn the reasons behind the approval or denial of each decision and perceive all the political tensions and ambiguities emerging in the speeches of the delegates and hidden in the final text of the resolutions.