Cultural Diversity and Freedom at Risk
By Janice A. Smith and Helle Dale
October 17, 2005
President George W. Bush’s monumental decision to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2003 caught both conservatives and liberals by surprise. After all, the U.S. had pulled out of that organization in 1984 because it had become bloated and grossly over-politicized. At every turn, it espoused policies that ran contrary to UNESCO’s founding mission to advance freedom, such as advocating a “new world information order” that in the end would curtail freedom of expression and of the press.
Nevertheless, UNESCO had reformed considerably under Director-General Matsuura, President Bush argued upon rejoining, and it could be a vital forum for helping the U.S. combat the global tide of intolerance and oppression embodied by the Taliban. Many Americans swallowed their residual distaste for the organization to give it the benefit of doubt. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation and more than 50 other organizations accepted spots on the reconstituted U.S.-UNESCO National Commission to become more engaged in UNESCO’s efforts to spread freedom, understanding, education for all, and tolerance.
This week, however, all that hope and all that multilateral goodwill—not to mention all the millions that the U.S. pays each year as UNESCO’s biggest benefactor—could be rebuffed. Despite the Bush Administration’s best efforts, other member states are expected to adopt a “cultural diversity” convention that regrettably is more about trade protectionism and cultural prejudice than cultural diversity and understanding.
Instead of promoting the right of people to learn about other cultures—the “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” called for in UNESCO’s constitution—the draft convention actually will make it possible for countries to limit their citizens’ access to foreign goods, foods, services, art, and traditions that express different cultures so well.
Article 8 of the current draft, for example, would allow parties to the convention to take “all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions,” which is defined in Article 3 as “expressions that result from the creativity of individuals, groups and societies, and that have cultural content.”
The State Department rightly argues that such definitions are so vague that they could be misinterpreted to enable “impermissible new barriers to trade in goods, services, or agricultural products.” Such vagueness, combined with an authority to “protect,” invites abuse, particularly when it comes to trade. It is easy to imagine certain countries citing the convention to justify trade restrictions against certain books written in foreign languages, or even foreign wines, because they pose a threat to local “culture.”
Imagine how much bolder such a convention will make countries like Burma, China, Iran, or Cuba, all of which are notorious for restricting freedoms, especially freedom of speech and of the press. China already forces Internet providers like Microsoft’s MSN to restrict access to the words “freedom” and “democracy” if they want to do business there. Oppressive Islamic regimes that reject Western values, arts, and humanities could use the convention to restrict all sorts of goods that they consider perverse. In Iran, teens have been arrested for dancing, and recently, the regime announced that women wearing their veils “improperly” would be “treated” like those who have no veil at all in public. Iran already goes to great lengths to "protect and preserve" its oppressive definition of Iranian cultural expressions.
Those who work diligently to bring attention to human rights abuses and trade protectionism should be concerned.
There already are concerns in Washington that some countries are trying to rush this convention through to use it against the United States at the upcoming World Trade Organization summit in Doha. That could explain why the U.S. is finding it difficult to modify Article 21, which obligates countries to “promote the principles and objectives of the Convention in other international forums.” And it could explain why the convention also mandates that countries not subordinate it to other treaties.
The draft also calls for establishing an “International Fund for Cultural Diversity.” Never mind that that is what UNESCO was supposed to be in the first place. The fund would be financed in part by contributions taken from the general UNESCO budget—of which the United States pays 22 percent. If all these countries are so enamored with this convention, don’t they expect there to be enough voluntary contributions to cover whatever this fund is supposed to do? No nation should be required to support a treaty that it has not ratified. If the draft convention is not reworded to remove all objectionable language, the U.S. should withhold the portion of its UNESCO dues that would go to support this fund.
Sadly, even our democratic allies support this deceptive convention that is likely to result in the suppression of free trade and political rights. France, UNESCO’s host country, sees the convention as a way to protect its wine and film industries from Californian competition. No surprises there. What is surprising is that Britain—which had pulled out of UNESCO back in 1984 over such misguided policies—appears ready to sign on, most likely because it now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and wants to go along to get along. It also views the convention as merely a political statement.
The Administration is right to fight this, and it will be right to walk away from the convention next week if others adopt it. Once such language is a part of the body of international law, it will be abused by those opposed to free markets, free speech, and freedom. The United States should not be willing to take that risk.
Janice A. Smith is Special Assistant to the Vice President in, and Helle Dale is Deputy Director of, the Kathryn and Shelby Collum Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
 See http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/file_download.php/2962532f35a06baebb199d30ce52956233C23_Eng.pdf.
 See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2005/54690.htm.
 Mure Dickie, “Don't mention democracy, Microsoft tells China web users,” Financial Times, June 11, 2005, p. 8.
 U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports, Iran,” 2004 Human Rights Reports, February 2005. “In October, in Rasht, Unit 110 of the Law Enforcement Forces, another police unit charged with maintaining Islamic propriety, arrested 8 girls and 12 boys dancing at a party.”
 Iran Focus, “Iran’s new Justice Minister vows harsher crackdown on women,” August 20, 2005, at http://www.iranfocus.com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=3388.