Background of the ethical principles for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage

Why are ethical principles needed for intangible cultural heritage?

Pursuant to the principle that intangible heritage does not exist independently from the people who create and enact it and who identify with it, the Convention places communities at its heart. Any activity concerning intangible cultural heritage should therefore take place with the fullest possible participation and the free, prior and informed consent of the communities, groups and individuals concerned. In the context of the increasing concern over the commercialization of intangible cultural heritage (which would include the commercial use of data or recordings without permission, and/or not providing rights and finances) States Parties expressed the need to provide guidelines on ethical approaches to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in order to underpin the implementation of the 2003 Convention.

What does the Convention say about ethics?

Neither the Convention nor the Operational Directives provide specific ethical guidelines or norms of conduct to orient the efforts of the many actors involved in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage or whose actions – whether inadvertently or by design – affect such safeguarding. However, ethical considerations are present in some chapters of the Operational Directives:

  • Paragraph 93 stipulates that ‘Accredited non-governmental organizations should abide by applicable domestic and international legal and ethical standards’.
  • Paragraph 103 stipulates that ‘States Parties are encouraged to develop and adopt codes of ethics based on the provisions of the Convention and these Operational Directives, in order to ensure appropriate ways of raising awareness about the intangible cultural heritage present in their respective territories’.

How were the ethical principles elaborated?

In 2012, at its seventh session, the Intergovernmental Committee invited the UNESCO Secretariat ‘to initiate work on a model code of ethics and to report on it to a next session of the Committee’ (Decision 7.COM 6).

Responding to the Committee’s request to give greater attention to this topic, UNESCO organized an expert meeting in Valencia, Spain, from 30 March to 1 April 2015, generously co-funded, hosted and co-organized by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of the Kingdom of Spain, with additional funding from the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund. Bringing together eleven experts from the six UNESCO electoral groups, the expert meeting in Valencia constituted the first important step in the global discussion on the relevance, content and modalities of elaboration of ethical principles for intangible cultural heritage.

Based on debates and results of the expert meeting, as well as previous discussions of the Committee and previous work undertaken by the Secretariat on the subject, the Committee endorsed, at its tenth session in 2015, twelve ethical principles for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage to spur global effort in increasing ethical considerations in the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and foster the ethical dimension of the 2003 Convention.

What are the objectives of the ethical principles?

Such ethical principles could provide guidance to Member States and development actors with concrete ethical procedures applicable to all kinds of activities related to intangible cultural heritage or that could potentially affect its viability. Such actors range from State agencies and public institutions to private entities and civil society organizations, as well as the communities, groups and individuals concerned. A non-exhaustive list of examples of code of ethics in the cultural sector is also provided for further guidance and inspiration.

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