The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage

What is the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage? The Convention was formally established in 2003, and from September 29 to October 17 of 2003 was signed by 150 States from around the world in Paris during the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO.

Though the Convention was officially approved in 2003, it has much older roots: much of the content and principles of the Convention can be found in numerous important declarations and statements throughout the history of the United Nations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, as well as in the UNESCO recommendation for the Protection of Cultural Traditions and Folklore of 1989, and the 2001 declaration on Cultural Diversity.

What then does the Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage involve? The purpose of the Convention is to protect cultural heritage that cannot be touched or quantified, to guarantee international respect and awareness for the intangible cultural heritage of groups, communities and in some cases individuals. But what exactly is intangible cultural heritage?

The Convention has defined intangible cultural heritage as “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques that are passed on from generation to generation, or in some cases individual to individual”.

There are three main bodies that govern the Convention. The first is the Conference of the Parties, the body that unites all the States that have signed the Convention. The second is the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage, composed of 21 States all of whom have signed the Convention and are responsible for overseeing internal decision making processes every four years. The third is a review body that is tasked with verifying nominations made each year by the States in three distinct lists, which will be discussed here shortly.

Just as with the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which protects physical sites and monuments, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage produces official lists of the cultural heritage elements recognized by the individual states as having particular value and protected by UNESCO.

The first of these lists is the Representative List, which lists the elements of intangible cultural heritage that have been formally granted recognition by UNESCO. The second is the List of Elements for Urgent Safeguarding, which identifies elements that are threatened or in danger of extinction. The third is the List of Best Practices, which contains the best practices indicated for the safeguarding of intangible heritage and has a particular focus on educating and passing on traditional knowledge to younger generations. Once an element has been included in one of these lists, the Member States of the Convention have a number of obligations.

First, the element must be carefully verified, inventoried and cataloged. The element must be defined, indicating the nature and the content of the element, its objective, the community to which it belongs, etc. Then a series of safeguarding measures must be determined and adopted so that the element is preserved, protected and promoted. Other obligations include providing economic support for the community to which the element belongs, and ensuring that schools, educational and cultural centers are able to pass the element along to new generations.

This is a brief look at the scope of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Its objectives are to identify specific intangible elements that represent valuable cultural heritage of a group, community, place or even individual; to determine to which Lists of the elements of cultural heritage belongs as well as produce Representative Lists for each State containing their recognized elements; and most importantly to guarantee the safeguarding, preservation and enhancement of the intangible cultural heritage.