Reagan was right about UNESCO

Reagan was right about UNESCO

Post Op-Ed at Ottawa Citizen
October 28, 2005

Led by France and Canada—and strongly opposed by the United States—an arm of the United Nations voted last week to enshrine a "right to cultural diversity" in international law. Like most UN gestures, this one is utterly incoherent, yet is clearly designed to diminish U.S. influence in the world.

Cultural diversity is easy enough to explain: Human society contains a great variety of cultures. But for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), cultural diversity takes on greater importance, described as "as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature."

UNESCO is the same organization that former U.S. president Ronald Reagan pulled the U.S. out of in 1984, citing its anti-Americanism, politicization of cultural issues, and bureaucratic money-wasting activities. In a spirit of reconciliation, President George W. Bush announced the U.S. return to UNESCO in 2002. But the organization's drive to codify "cultural protectionism" demonstrates the wisdom of Mr. Reagan's original stand.

UNESCO contends the "full implementation of cultural rights" is required. This means the right to take part in the "cultural life of the community," the right to free primary and secondary education, and the right to obtain benefits accruing from the "protection of any scientific, literary, or artistic production of which one is the author."

A "right" to cultural diversity, then, quickly evolves into a much broader discussion involving public education and intellectual-property rights. But for the immediate context, the important (and my favourite) statement from the UNESCO document is the following: As "vectors of identity, values and meaning, [cultural goods and services] must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods."

I confess: I have no idea what a "vector of identity" is. But assuming UNESCO is correct, why should a movie, a book, or a piece of music not be treated as a consumer good? The answer leads us to examine who is really pushing "cultural diversity" and why.

Speaking on the issue last month, France's culture minister cited UNESCO figures that "the eight leading Hollywood studios share 85 per cent of the world market; the three biggest audiovisual firms are located in the United States (Time Warner, Viacom, and Walt Disney); nine of the world's 10 most translated authors are English-language writers; and in 2004, four companies shared the bulk of the world recording market."

Striking a similar tone, the Canadian Heritage ministry, on its website, claims that in affecting cultural diversity, globalization is changing "our traditional concepts of national identity and sovereignty."

Now it becomes clearer. Globalization and international trade are seen by many countries, France and Canada in particular, as being synonymous with the Americanization—the homogenization—of culture. Though France invented motion pictures and a Canadian invented basketball, American popular culture has come to dominate. UNESCO and its proponents argue that because of this, America's popular culture is a threat to the "human rights" of non-Americans.

One way for a nation to deal with this "threat" is to produce high-quality cultural products that more people want to see, read and hear. And with globalization and technological advances, all countries now have a much larger potential audience.

Or there's the UNESCO way: fabricate a "right" to cultural diversity, enshrine it in international law, and then use that right as justification for economic protectionism that will benefit the same special interest groups that created the "right" in the first place. And, as the French culture minister emphasizes, this "is an international legal agreement with an impact on international trade law."

As with the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court, when the U.S. later refuses to ratify or sign the UNESCO convention, you can bet that self-appointed spokesmen for "the international community" will condemn American "unilateralism."

It's no wonder America's representative to UNESCO, Louise Oliver, opposed the adoption of the UNESCO convention. She rightly contends that it "could be used to restrict cultural exchange and individual freedom." Of UNESCO's 154 members, only Israel has supported the U.S. in opposing the convention on cultural diversity.

Ms. Oliver's courageous stand should be applauded, and the U.S. should, once again, seriously re-examine why it remains part of UNESCO at all.