UN Cultural Diversity Treaty Welcome, But Won't Solve Trade Tensions

Posted on Thursday, October 06 at 12:16 by jensonj
Canada's tax on so-called split-run magazines (U.S. magazines loaded with Canadian ads) was dealt a famous setback at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the late 1990s. But the fact remains that some of our most cherished cultural policies have weathered the storm of globalization rather well. We still subsidize a national broadcaster (even if its airwaves have gone anodyne in recent weeks thanks to a staff lock-out) and we still impose minimum requirements for the broadcasting of Canadian music and drama on radio and television. Nonetheless, the experience of other countries has been more checkered. For years, The U.S. has pressured South Korea to dismantle its screen quota system a policy which requires cinemas to show a minimum percentage of local films. The program has been widely hailed for building up a robust Korean film industry, but just last month U.S. Deputy Secretary of Treasury Robert Kimmitt cited the screen quota as a major obstacle in the path of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Korea. Other governments have won elections only to find that U.S. negotiators have already had their way with their country's cultural policies. In 1999, the New Zealand Labour Party came to office with a pledge to introduce quotas similar to Canada's Canadian content (Can-con) rules, to increase the amount of local content on radio and TV airwaves. To its chagrin, the new government promptly discovered that the outgoing Administration had bound the country's hands -- under pressure from the U.S. -- by committing at the WTO to not introduce legislation which discriminates in favour of local broadcasting content. There's a sobering lesson here: when one government agrees to refrain from certain cultural policies, that decision can handcuff future governments. And some of the impetus for negotiating a global convention on cultural diversity was borne of a desire to loosen the fetters clasped on governments by trade agreements. Negotiations on the draft UNESCO Convention wrapped up in May, and the resulting text is clearly rooted in a belief that governments have a sovereign right to develop policies which nurture cultural industries and expression. But, as Culture Ministers converge on Paris to debate the draft convention, the reviews are starting to trickle in. Last week, a member of the U.S. delegation to UNESCO criticized the proposed convention for insulating national cultures and "censoring" foreign productions. This might have been expected. After all, the United States rarely encounters a multilateral treaty to its liking these days. And Hollywood is in no mood for any roll-back of hard-won gains in trade negotiations. But perhaps the U.S. needn't worry as even supporters of the UNESCO effort are offering mixed reviews of the draft convention. Garry Neil, Executive Director of the Ottawa-based International Network for Cultural Diversity, says the draft convention is a welcome tool, particularly if it provides a forum for governments to work on addressing some of the conflicts between culture and trade. But, although he's excited about the new treaty, Mr. Neil is not convinced that it resolves the fundamental tension between trade agreements and culture. He suspects that if the draft convention had been in force in the late 1990s, it would have done little to help Canada win its fight with the U.S. over magazines at the WTO. In fact, Article 20 of the draft convention stresses that the agreement is not intended to "modify" any other rights or obligations which countries may have under other treaties (including trade agreements). Michelle Swenarchuk, a Toronto-based environmental lawyer who follows international negotiations closely, thinks that this wording is "unfortunate." She notes that governments have successfully resisted calls for the inclusion of such language in other international negotiations in the health and environmental field, most recently in the World Health Organization's Tobacco Control Convention. The upshot, she says, was to give governments more policy leeway. While the UNESCO Convention might get noticed by trade panels for example, if a trade dispute over cultural matters arose between two countries that were both parties to the UNESCO Convention Ms. Swenarchuk fears that the convention's impact is likely to be "limited." In other words, don't hold your breath for cultural imperatives to start trumping economic ones. Still, if the convention enters into force, governments will have erected a noble monument to the importance of cultural diversity, albeit one which takes its place alongside countless skyscrapers consecrated to international commerce. There are no simple answers to explain how this mass of trade agreements is to be reconciled with new (non-commercial) agreements like the UNESCO Convention, or the WHO's Tobacco Control Convention. One thing is certain, though: peering out on this congested and confusing landscape of global treaties is enough to shake one's faith in the theory of intelligent design. Ottawa-based writer and analyst Luke Eric Peterson writes a biweekly column for Embassy. http://www.embassymag.ca/html/index.php?display=story&full_path=/2005/october/5/un/

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