The 2003 Convention in its Article 2 provides a definition of ICH for the purposes of the Convention; the definition consists of two parts, the second being a non-exhaustive list of domains in which the ICH is manifested (Article 2.2). The first step (Article 2.1) speaks about practices, representations and expressions that should be recognized as belonging to their cultural heritage by communities, groups and individuals, to which some more prerequisites are added: the heritage to be safeguarded under this Convention must be living, traditional, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity, be in conformity with international human rights instruments, and with requirements of mutual respect and sustainable development.

A frequent question is whether inventories that are drawn up by the States Parties should follow the definition of ICH as developed for the Convention. Although States Parties may be encouraged to do so, this does not seem to be an obligation since the inventories, which serve purposes on the national level, may be drawn up in a manner geared to the situation in the States Parties. It stands to reason that States Parties will have to give proof that elements that they want to propose to the Committee for listing in the Representative or the Urgent List, or for financing, meet the definition of ICH as laid down in Article 2 of the Convention.


Some inventory systems (for instance, Cape Verde No CP, Mauritius Data no in CP and South Africa No CP) more or less follow the domains as elaborated for the 2003 Convention:
(a) oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the ICH,
(b) performing arts,
(c) social practices, rituals and festive events,
(d) knowledge and practices about nature and the universe,
(e) traditional craftsmanship.

However, in their periodical reports, the States Parties will confront the Intergovernmental Committee with a great deal of variation:

  • some systems use idiosyncratic terminology for indicating ICH domains, also using different demarcations than those used in the Convention;
  • many systems (especially in Africa and Latin America) present languages in their own right, and not just as vehicle of the ICH;
  • the term (traditional) performing arts is not popular; instead, in many systems (traditional) dance and music are explicitly mentioned – Bulgaria is a case in point;
  • many categories figuring in national inventories may easily be accommodated under one or more of the domains distinguished in the Convention: traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge systems, for instance, might be classified under knowledge about nature and such categories as (traditional) games and/or play and, social organization, under the domain of social practices. Themes as mythology and names of places, objects or animals could be accommodated under oral expressions and language as a vehicle of the ICH respectively, and religious ceremonies and pilgrimage under rituals or festive events. Categories such as memories and beliefs, genealogical information, and culinary traditions might give rise to some discussion.

Divergences concerning domains often reflect different orientations of the ICH of communities in different parts of the world (Algeria No data in CP, for instance, introduces “pilgrimage” and Haiti No CP, patron saint days as separate categories).
Some listing systems do not only present intangible elements. The Venezuelan Catalogue No CP presents both tangible and intangible heritage, whereas the Lithuanian system lists tangible elements associated to ICH practices, tradition bearers and collections, publications and depositories. It distinguishes the following categories:
(1) individual performers, masters and bearers, (2) groups and communities of performers and bearers, (3) forms, genres, skills and techniques, (4) events (e.g. feasts, celebrations, rites, fairs), (5) spaces of traditional culture, (6) archives and other depositories, (7) collections, (8) artefacts and other products of traditional culture, (9) publications.

Depth of information

About half of the systems that were reported on present extensive documentation. Other systems are less exhaustive in providing information about listed elements, some of them having the character of catalogues or registers, others presenting some information, boiling down to a list of encyclopaedia-like entries. Some systems adopt different approaches simultaneously: in the Brazilian system No data in CP there is a national top layer of 6 or 7 elements that so far have found a place in the so-called “Registry” and of about 40 elements that are accounted for in the “Inventory”. For the elements incorporated in the Registry and Inventory – i.e. on the national level - extensive documentation is provided. In the federal states inventories are being elaborated that are not accompanied by such documentation or recording efforts.

It goes without saying that physically and financially it is not feasible to provide detailed information even in a medium term about all of the ICH present in huge countries that feature a tremendous wealth of ICH like Australia, Brazil, China, India or Nigeria.
In most countries there is no special (sui generis) legislation to protect the property rights of the communities and groups of practitioners and tradition bearers over their traditional cultural and social practises and expressions. This may be a reason for being careful before providing detailed information about ICH elements in easily accessible inventories. When detailed information is provided, for instance, about traditional medicinal knowledge, or about exact locations and preparation of materials associated with ICH elements, or when recordings of musical and oral traditions are linked to inventories, outsiders may easily use and commercialize such information if there is no appropriate legal protection.

During one of the meetings it was suggested that inventories might be set up with the double purpose of

  1. safeguarding in the sense of the 2003 Convention, and
  2. providing legal protection as envisaged by the negotiations going on in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

This seems a sensible thing to do; however, in order to establish intellectual property rights for collectively enacted ICH elements, it will be necessary to indicate exactly who belongs to a given community of tradition bearers, and who does not, and to provide detailed information which helps to identify the element concerned. According to some, this might go against the spirit of the Convention: the governmental experts who prepared the draft of the Convention, propagated an open and dynamic view of communities (mobile, opening up towards and interacting with other communities) and also wished to respect and enhance the evolving character of the ICH.

Time depth

The Convention speaks about practices, etc., that are transmitted from generation to generation, without stating how many generations or giving any other indication concerning a minimum age for ICH that is to be listed or safeguarded under the Convention. Some experts mentioned that two or three generations might be enough, while at an expert meeting in Ethiopia it was suggested that for that country seven generations would be appropriate. It may be clear that for societies that traditionally do or did not use their first language in written form, it sometimes will be difficult to establish such exact numbers of generations.

The Lithuanian system covers elements that are no longer practised, while in Belgium, on the contrary, ICH elements related to cyberculture are collected with a view to inserting them in a classificatory system of ICH. Although both types of elements may well figure on national inventories, it cannot be assumed that they will be accepted for listing or for international assistance under the Convention.

A related question concerns rapid evolutions with important contributions from outside, yielding new forms and contents that on the one hand often demonstrably are rooted in traditional ICH elements, but that on the other hand are generally felt as not resulting from an uninterrupted chain of developments. Many cross-overforms of World Music belong here. It will be up to the Committee to decide whether such elements meet the criteria that wish to establish for inscription on lists and for funding under international assistance.

Ordering principles

Some States order their inventories along administrative lines – Venezuela No CP, for instance, presents separately the cultural heritage for each of its 336 communities. Federal States quite naturally use a territorial principle for structuring their inventories. It seems that most States, use their administrative partitions (and existing structures for execution) as a primary ordering principle. Colombia No CP, for instance, will set up a separate inventory for each of its 32 departments. Bulgaria combines the territorial principle with classification according to ethnic or religious background; in Bulgaria, as in many other countries, regional and community-related criteria to a certain extent (still) coincide. China (Data does not correspond in CP)officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups and is organizing its inventory accordingly. Some rather homogeneous smaller countries, such as Haiti No CP, report that there is no need to distinguish between different communities, or regions.

In many countries centralizing policies and or migration and urbanisation have had the effect that present-day administrative-territorial demarcations do no longer coincide with borders of regions that traditionally were inhabited by discrete ethno-linguistic or otherwise definable communities.