The "Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions" was approved in Paris yesterday by an overwhelming majority of 191 member countries of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). Only Israel joined the US in opposing the text.
Britain - the current president of the European Union - voted in favour of the 40-page document. The British ambassador to Unesco, Timothy Craddock, described it as "clear, carefully balanced, and consistent with the principles of international law and fundamental human rights."
But the US ambassador, Louise Oliver, said the convention, adopted during the UN cultural organisation's general conference which is held every two years, was "deeply flawed". According to Washington - which only rejoined Unesco two years ago after a 19-year boycott - it is a charter for unscrupulous governments to erect trade barriers, suppress minority cultures and block the free flow of information.
Vigorously backed by France, which tends to lead the world in cultural protection, the convention authorises nations to take "regulatory measures" to promote diversity. Under Article 8 they may identify "situations where cultural expressions ... are at risk of extinction and may take all "appropriate measures" to preserve them.
Arguments are certain to rage for years over the text's judicial scope, but the French for one are confident it is an important marker which will help it keep cinema, publishing and music out of the next round of talks at the World Trade Organisation. The convention enshrines the French policy of subsidising the arts and imposing quotas on American films and music.
Indeed, the Paris press could hardly contain its glee at America's isolation in the 60-year-old assembly, which was set up after the Second World War to promote peace via the interchange of ideas.
"The incredible mobilisation of member states of Unesco ... will stay in the memory as a rare moment," gushed Le Monde. "They have reaffirmed loud and clear that culture is not a merchandise like others. They have called on the creators of tomorrow ... to rise up against the dominant culture and block the American steamroller."
Opponents of the US believe it is motivated by the sole urge to impose Steven Spielberg and Mariah Carey on the world and strangle at birth any alternative foreign film or music industry.
The Americans have been careful to base their opposition to the convention on higher arguments. They have been helped by a text which - with its use of terms like "interculturality" - lays itself open to charges of ambiguous banality. According to the US State Department, the convention could be wilfully misinterpreted to put up all sorts of trade barriers - only this week France officially designated foie gras as a "cultural item" - while repressive regimes could use it to justify "measures that would interfere with human rights and fundamental freedoms".Reuse content