UNESCO's 2003 Convention and Sustainable Development: the International Policy Context and National Experiences by Janet Blake


Faculty of Law and member of the Centre of Excellence for Education in Sustainable Development at Shahid Beheshti University (Tehran), Global Facilitator for UNESCO’s Capacity-trainig Programme and member of the Cultural Heritage Committee of the International Law Association.


This discussion is strategically situated within two important and inter-connected discourses, namely that of human rights (including cultural diversity) and sustainable development which, in particular, provided the policy framework within which the 2003 Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) was developed. These are vital contexts for ensuring sustainability of communities and of safeguarding their heritage. Within this human rights/sustainability framework, a primary focus is on participation as a (procedural) human right and how the role of communities (and groups and individuals) in safeguarding ICH is perceived under the 2003 Convention. An important question here is: how much room is allowed for diversity and even dissent within communities? In recent years, field human rights issues have been introduced more explicitly into the protection of cultural heritage than ever before as illustrated in the Human Rights Council (HRC) Report on the right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage which recognised cultural heritage as a proper subject for human rights. The safeguarding intangible cultural heritage now places a duty on States to ensure its viability, implying the recognition of a wide range of social and cultural rights of bearer communities. In recent international policy documents on the sustainable development goals, the three fundamental principles of sustainable development are understood as: human rights; equality; and sustainability.
UNESCO has been working for the past 10 years to place culture much more firmly in this development agenda, not as an adjunct (or even an obstacle to) development but as a key driver of it. This has, to some degree, been successful but there remains much work to be done before culture is accorded its proper place in setting international development goals and their implementation. All of this makes the 2003 Convention and its policy context highly relevant since (a) it can contribute to sustainable community development and (b) further the international debate on the role of culture more generally in development. Sustainable development depends upon innovation which, in turn, depends upon the use of knowledge over time such as that embodies in ICH. This draws out an apparent paradox whereby the ability to innovate is often built upon inherited ‘traditions’, which reminds us that the idea of a ‘traditional heritage’ is not something stuck in the past but, rather, a set of skills, know-how, understandings that have been passed on through generations and have acquired new shapes and additional elements over time. In this way, intangible cultural heritage is truly a living heritage that can contribute in various ways to sustainability of communities, their livelihoods and of the environment.