Ratification of 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Australian Human Rights Commission Submission to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

24 September 2008

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Level 8, 133 Castlereagh St
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 2001
Ph. (02) 9284 9600


Table of Contents


  1. The Australian Human Rights and Commission (The Commission) makes this submission to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in its Inquiry into the ratification of the 2003 UNESCO Convention Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage.

  2. The submission is written in response to the letter from Mr Paul Salmond of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) on 23 July 2008, in which the Australian Human Rights Commission (formally the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, HREOC) was invited to submit comments on whether Australia should ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention.

  3. The Commission wishes to acknowledge the expert advice of Professor Amareswar Galla, Convenor of the UNESCO Pacific Asia Observatory for Cultural Diversity in Human Development, in preparing this submission.


  1. The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends that Australia ratify the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Significance of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

  1. Standard setting national and international instruments often provide a benchmark for assessing and ensuring best practice that respects human rights of all people. While soft law instruments such as charters, declarations and recommendations provide frameworks for voluntary policy development and practice, hard law instruments such as conventions and treaties that are ratified, ensure implementation is mandatory. In several respects, all these are aspirational with the national policy and legislative frameworks providing for variation and adaptation customising agreed international standards within local and national contexts.

  2. The Australian Human Rights Commission, through it charter, aspires to ensure that Australians of all cultural backgrounds, irrespective of linguistic and cultural diversity, enjoy certain basic rights. Hence, the Commission’s interest in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

  3. The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is often considered as the complementary instrument to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, which mainly focussed on immovable natural and cultural heritage. Inscriptions with mixed values of both natural and cultural, as applied for example to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, consider intangible heritage values to a certain extent under the criteria dealing with cultural landscapes.

  4. The Commission’s advocacy for Australia’s ratification of the Convention is with respect to all Australians. Often, intangible cultural heritage in Australia is focussed on Indigenous heritage only. While this is vital, as the unique intangible cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is of global significance, the intangible cultural heritage of disappearing cultural landscapes of Australians of all other linguistic and culturally diverse backgrounds require different methodologies and approaches and are rarely given due attention.

The Commission and its understanding of intangible cultural heritage; the convention and its current status including the number of states that have already ratified

  1. The Commission recognises intangible cultural heritage as described by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), that it is manifested through:

    • oral traditions (thus making the maintenance of languages a critical aspect of preserving intangible cultural heritage)

    • performing arts (such as theatre, dance and music)

    • rituals, festivals and social practices

    • traditional craftsmanship, and

    • knowledge concerning nature, the environment and the universe.

  2. Intangible cultural heritage is:

    • transmitted across generations

    • constantly being recreated by communities and groups, in response to their environment and interaction with the natural world – it is thus both traditional, living and evolving, all at the same time

    • provides groups with an identity and sense of continuity

    • compatible with values of human rights, cultural diversity, sustainable development and cross-cultural respect.

  3. As noted in the UNESCO Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity (2001), culture – and this includes intangible cultural heritage - is a shared heritage of all humanity; it is the mainspring of cultural maintenance and a guarantee for continuing human creativity. Understood as being a critical nexus between human and environmental ecologies, intangible cultural heritage is a glue that holds together humanity’s relationship with the physical world and between groups that make civil societies.

  4. At a time, therefore, of global concern about the effects of human-made climate change, this convention is an important international treaty that will complement Australia’s contribution to combating this most compelling of challenges for human survival in the 21st century.

  5. However, intangible cultural heritage is under threat from many fronts:

    • globalisation

    • the uniformization of policies, and state polices within many nations

    • failures of inter-generational transference

    • technology

    • erosion of traditional lifestyles, urbanisation and mono-culturalism

    • climate change and other environmental factors

  6. In Australia, intangible cultural heritage can be loosely categorised into three broad groups:

    • Firstly, and most significantly, is the heritage of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. This heritage is recognised internationally as ancient, unique living cultures with a special relationship with the physical environment.

    • Secondly, Australia is in many regards an immigrant nation. Other than its First Peoples, all other Australians have been born here or arrived over the last 220 years. The cultural heritage of immigrant communities is a living link to their home countries, as well as being new and evolving diaspora cultures.

    • Thirdly, Australia has developed its own distinctive cultural practices, as is common in those countries with a strong rural, pioneering history, albeit a relatively short one. This heritage of largely European settlement and often still manifest in certain rural industries (for example, wool and wine production, or uniquely Australian Heritage Trades now addressed as a national priority through the Cobb & Co Museum in Toowoomba) is also worthy of recognition.

  7. For these reasons, let alone the important human rights factors, the Commission believes this convention is critical and should be supported by the Australian government.

  8. As of 12 September 2008 there were 102 state parties to the Convention representing more than half the member states of the United Nations having supported it, many of these are European countries as well as many of our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Benefits to Australia of ratification

  1. Ratification of the Convention will provide an important international statement about Australia’s commitment to its First Nations, its immigrant communities, and to its overall recognition of the importance of the physical environment, its preservation, and to human and cultural rights – it will be an historically progressive legacy of the Rudd government. Additional benefits are outlined below.

Preserving intangible cultural heritage as an essential human right

  1. Australian ratification of the Convention will both preserve our varied and significant intangible cultural heritage, but will also do so as a cultural, and therefore, human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (article 27) first articulates this basic right, which is then elaborated in more detail in later treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which came into force in 1976).

  2. Subsequently, other treaties have recognised that various ethnic or other minorities within states have not adequately enjoyed their rights, and that rights to cultural practice and maintenance are particularly important. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which came into force in 1976) and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities (1993), for example, emphasize the importance of cultural practice and maintenance as basic human rights.

  3. However, it tends to be the daily, lived experience of culture that is most significant and real for the vast majority of humanity, not the tangible, immovable and iconic manifestations of culture (important though these are). Intangible cultural heritage is therefore a critical issue for all Australians, whether they be Indigenous, recent immigrant, or have a long family connection to the country.

  4. Australia’s commitment to intangible cultural heritage may also have impacts in the region, especially if it is linked to foreign aid. In many developing countries intangible cultural heritage is essential to the human development of its people, and can also be linked to environmental protection. By funding programs related to culture and development Australia will enhance its reputation internationally.

Supporting the Australian economy

  1. Maintaining Australia’s cultural heritage, in all its many forms, has both a human capital and an economic capital dividend. Respecting, nurturing and supporting intangible cultural heritage has clear social benefits (happy, better functioning, more vibrant communities) as well as health benefits (freedom of cultural expression and to practice aspects of traditional life builds social and emotional well-being, which directly improves population-level health outcomes – an important economic saving to the health system).
  2. As well, the maintenance of intangible cultural heritage will have significant benefits of enriching Australian cultural life and, consequently, supporting cultural industries and heritage tourism by helping to keep them sustainable. As was noted by the Bureau of Tourism Research, cultural tourism provides significant economic benefit to Australia:

    “Australia is increasingly being recognised as an exciting, unique, diverse, and sophisticated tourist destination which has much to interest visitors beyond its world-renowned natural attractions. Australia has a wide range of cultural assets including museums, art galleries, historic and indigenous sites, performing arts and live concerts designed to enrich, educate and entertain visitors.

    Many tourists are keen to learn about and experience the culture of the places they visit. Some plan attendance at cultural events, others seek to meet the local people. Understanding the phenomenon of cultural tourism is increasingly necessary as more and more tourists seek authentic, high quality, interactive tourism experiences... On average, visitors who went to cultural attractions spent more in Australia than did other inbound visitors. Further, (as)...17 per cent of all inbound visitors to Australia had formed a specific desire to visit a particular cultural attraction during their stay it could be argued, that had these opportunities not been available, some of these visitors may have chosen to visit other countries that better satisfy their travel goals “

    Source: Cultural Tourism in Australia, Occasional paper no.27

  1. As noted on the Australia Council website, the following table that describes the share of cultural and heritage visitors by activity in 2006, indicates the potential of intangible cultural heritage as an economically valuable asset to the tourism industry.
Cultural and heritage tourism activity
International visitors
Domestic overnight visitors
Domestic day visitors

Attend theatre, concerts or other performing arts
Visit museums or art galleries
Visit art and craft workshops or studios
Attend festivals and fairs or cultural events
Experience Indigenous art and craft and cultural displays
Visit an Indigenous site or community
Visit historical or heritage building sites or monuments

Source: Tourism Research Australia, Snapshot: Cultural and Heritage Tourism in Australia, 2006

  1. The average number of cultural and heritage activities per international visitor was 2.2. For domestic overnight visitors it was 1.3 and for domestic day visitors, 1.1. Between 1999 and 2006 cultural and heritage tourism for international visitors had an average annual growth of 4 per cent, increasing to 2.6 million visitors. For domestic overnight tourists, there was an increase to 9.8 million visitors in the same period.

  2. The Commission notes that the Convention states that not more than 1% of member states’ annual contributions to UNESCO may be required to cover the costs associated with ratification. In Australia’s case, this is likely to be in the order of only $70,000 per year and although there are also costs associated with ratification including attendance at various international fora, these are very marginal.

  3. Of greater cost will be other compulsory activities, most notably, designating or establishing a body to co-ordinate and maintain intangible cultural heritage inventories, as well as policy and program development. Whatever costs are associated with these tasks they will only represent a fraction of the financial benefits which accrued from maintaining Australia’s heritage from cultural, tourism, arts and other industries. As noted above, there are also likely cost savings, especially in the health and other social policy areas, from preserving cultural identities of Australia citizens.

Assisting the government’s social inclusion agenda

  1. A socially inclusive community is one in which the cultural practices, ethnicities, faiths, traditions and mores are freely practiced and respected by members of that community. All governments are committed to maintaining social cohesion, harmony, security and commitment to Australia. This is partly achieved through civics education, citizenship and multicultural programs. However, it is best achieved by nurturing a national civic culture where all members of the community feel that they are respected and they can freely enjoy their own languages, heritage and related cultural practices.

  2. As part of a wider process of cross-cultural communication to maintain social harmony and cohesion, ratification of the Convention would complement other UN statements such as the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and associated activities such as developing cultural indicators for human development.

Complementing other areas of activity

  1. Ratification of the Convention will complement a range of important initiatives in the area both national international.

  2. For example, one such is the recent establishment of a new institute liked to the United Nations University (UNU). UNU studies the way human activities are altering the world; it was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 to be an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training, and the dissemination of knowledge related to global problems of human survival and development. The University mainly focuses on peace and governance, environment and sustainable development, and science and technology.

  3. Since 2004, UNU explored the feasibility of establishing a research and training centre of traditional knowledge (or a traditional knowledge institute) which would play an important role investigating threats, methods to maintain, and the resilience of indigenous traditional knowledge systems.

  4. The University’s first pilot research program on traditional knowledge was established in December 2007 with funding from the Christensen Fund (a US-based foundation active in the areas of cultural and biological diversity) and the Northern Territory Government at the Charles Darwin University School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems. This is regarded as an important international step in the process towards the establishment of a permanent traditional knowledge institute.

  5. Ratification of the Convention will also reinforce the requirements of the current legislative framework, including the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1986, to strengthen the recognition and protection provided for intangible cultural heritage held by Indigenous Australians. This is also becoming increasingly important in the development of a national response to climate change and a national emissions trading scheme.

Responses to the questions raised in DEWHA’s letter

Does the Commission support ratification of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage? Why?

  1. The Australian Human Rights Commission considers the intangible cultural heritage of all Australians as an integral part of the set of standards that constitute cultural rights under various international instruments.

  2. In the 1970s, the Piggot Committee of Inquiry dealt with tangible movable cultural property while the Hope Committee of Inquiry focused on immovable heritage. Unfortunately, intangible cultural heritage was then considered as ‘folk-life’ and the respective inquiry never received the same attention or follow-up as the other two inquiries.

  3. This lack of appreciation of intangible cultural heritage was largely due to the global concern with movable and immovable heritage that is tangible, and the broader relegation of intangible cultural heritage to the domain of folk-lore or folk-life.

  4. However, Australia has had a more enlightened approach to the intangible cultural heritage of its Indigenous Australians. When the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) was established in 1962, it was an emergency response to fast disappearing Indigenous living cultures as, at that time, they were considered destined for demise or assimilation into the wider Australian values informed by the colonial paradigm of culture and heritage. This was radically revised when the Board of AIATSIS from early 1970s began to ensure and support the continuity of Indigenous intangible cultural heritage.

  5. It is widely argued by peak advocacy bodies such as the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils’ of Australia (FECCA) that we are yet to systematically address living heritage of immigrants.

  6. The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage provides an opportunity for Australia to reconsider its practice of heritage and rethinking focusing on the non-duality of both the tangible and intangible cultural inheritances.

Would ratification change the current activities you undertake for the protection of Australia’s intangible cultural heritage and the way in which you perform these activities?

  1. Ratification of the intangible cultural heritage convention would enhance the capacity of the Commission in the way it engages with the safeguarding of the human rights of all Australians.

  2. In particular, the rights of Indigenous Australians would be better understood and ensured. For instance, the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples emphasizes in several places the importance of indigenous heritage in all aspects, and the importance of living heritage for the continuity of cultures. Australia is at present considering its recognition of this Declaration, being only one of four nations which did not last year, if so, this would have significant monitoring and reporting responsibilities for the Commission.

  3. The Commission is also concerned with inter-faith dialogue and awareness about religious diversity of all Australians. It is involved in a significant way with monitoring and ensuring the rights of all Australian with regard to religious diversity, for example, we are currently undertaking the largest report into freedom of religion and belief ever conducted in Australia and which should be finalized by early 2010.

  4. Intangible cultural heritage informs this religious diversity and, at present, the lack of appropriate research and understanding is a major concern – not solely for cultural purposes but also for community harmony, social inclusion, and security. Australia, by becoming a state party to the convention, would assist in many ways the roles of responsibilities of the Commission in addressing religious diversity.

  5. Religious diversity, religious vilification and religious freedom are all relevant and connected. The existing legislation focuses on ‘race’, but this is a contentious term and the concept of the ‘ethno-religious’ category (previously applied solely to Jews) is contested, especially with the rise of what is now described as Islamophobia. Increasingly, therefore, the intangible cultural heritage aspects of faith will require protecting and maintaining and will fall under the mandate of the Commission.

  6. The question of inventories is a significant one. Listing the intangible cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples, especially secret and sacred knowledge (while important from the point of safeguarding) may pose serious issues of privacy and access. Moreover, the responsibility for such inventories could be exclusively custodial to the host communities and need appropriate measures to ensure that the listing does not violate traditional rights. It must be emphasized that any responsibilities of cultural institutions dealing with intangible cultural heritage is different from the way they have dealt with tangible heritage where safekeeping has been a practice.

  7. Listing could also have serious implications for protecting the intellectual and cultural property rights of Australian Indigenous peoples. This is an area that is inadequately addressed in both the Convention and its operational directives (the guiding text for the implementation of the Convention). However, Australia, with its significant knowledge and practice in this area could make a major contribution to the State Parties of the Convention. Moreover, through such engagement, the Australian Human Rights Commission, which works closely with the similar institutions in the Asia Pacific (for example, through the Asia Pacific Forum) could make a difference for other Indigenous people in the region.

  8. The World Intellectual and Cultural Property Organisation has been consulting in the region on intangible cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge systems. It has initiated pilot studies in countries such as Kenya. It is also engaging with Pacific countries such as Vanuatu in safeguarding traditional knowledge systems. Some of the outcomes of these studies could have implications in the way the Commission interprets its obligations both within Australia and at a broader regional level.

  9. Linguistic diversity and multi-lingualism are a concern as language is critical for the carriers of intangible cultural heritage. The capacity of cultural institutions in dealing with the diversity of languages could be an issue. Intangible cultural heritage, a significant but oft neglected dimension of cultural diversity, would become critical in the way the Commission addresses State-of-the-Nation reporting on social justice issues.

  10. In particular, the Commission notes that, among all the standard-setting conventions dealing with culture, the intangible cultural heritage convention is the first one that expressly states the role of communities as the carriers of knowledge.

  11. It further provides for non-government organizations at the national level but also those accredited at an international level. Some of our Pacific neighbours such as Vanuatu are in the process of becoming State Parties to the convention. Others, such as Papua New Guinea, have within recent weeks. For the first time it will bring a different dimension to the intangible cultural heritage of Australian South Sea Islanders in who have re-established their cultural connections to their countries and communities of origin.

  12. In several ways, Australia’s ratification of the Convention would facilitate the Commission’s role to bring together the carriers of intangible cultural heritage, individuals and communities and the relevant research agencies, cultural institutions and government authorities in ensuring the safeguarding of Australia’s unique and highly diverse intangible cultural heritage.

  13. It is noted that given the rich cultural diversity of Australia and the origin of our populations and their descendents, there are implications for the intangible cultural heritage of our immigrant communities. It should also be noted that the greater majority of countries from which immigrant Australians come from are already state parties to the convention. Australia becoming a State Party to the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage could add a significant dimension to the way we safeguard the cultural diversity of our immigrant heritage.

What resource implications would ratification be likely to have for your work in this area?

  1. This would depend on how the government chooses to meet its commitments under the convention. There could, if not should, be a role for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Unit (as noted above with reference to existing legislation) and for the Race Discrimination Unit to monitor Australia’s adherence to the convention given that it is an important human rights treaty. While it is not possible to accurately assess the resource implications at this time, the Commission may require funding of between one and two ASL to undertake effectively this monitoring role.

What existing activities of your organisation support the protection of Australia’s intangible cultural heritage? How would these activities sit within Australia’s obligations under the Convention if the Government were to ratify?

  1. The Australian Human Rights Commission is not a cultural heritage institution, however, it has an active concern in the culture and heritage of all Australians from a human rights perspective, given that the rights to practice or use languages, traditions, cultures and religions must be permitted and freely enjoyed unless they involve coercion or harm. If Australia was to ratify the Convention, the Commission would be an appropriate agency to monitor national adherence to the operation directives as well as its overall impact from the human rights perspective.