Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cultural Diversity: Canada's UN Victory

Read the full article in The Tyee. (Richard Warnica, October 28, 2005)

The Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

"A project started by Canadians and championed by the French, the convention aims to opt cultural policies out of trade agreements; to define that books, magazines, songs and movies are not the same as lumber and t-shirts.

"But what the convention means and how it will be interpreted aren't clear. Economists, activists, academics and politicians disagree on its purpose, its scope and even its relevance in the digital age."

The Canadian Origins of the Convention

"Sheila Copps was Minister of Canadian Heritage for eight years from the late nineties until 2003. She was in her office in Ottawa last week when her old colleague in Paris called to congratulate her on the live birth of the convention she'd helped conceive seven years before.

"Copps laughed about the vehement U.S. opposition. "It's ironic, because if it wasn't for the U.S., we never would have had the instrument in the first place," Copps told The Tyee.

"In 1996, the U.S. challenged a Canadian tax on split runs -- American magazines with Canadian ads - at the World Trade Organization, launching what Copps called "the magazine wars."

"And when the WTO forced Canada to scrap the tax, it caused a panic in the culture community. It was the first time a Canadian cultural policy was challenged at a trade forum and no one really knew what would be next.

"The challenge, 'had nothing to do with magazines at all,' Copps said. 'It was a way of testing our resolve.' In other words, if in 1997 the WTO was scrapping a magazine tax, what would they be doing in 1998? How long before Canadian media ownership rules, Canadian content rules and even the CBC were challenged?"

The Networks

"A year after the WTO shot down the Canadian tariff, Copps invited culture ministers from around the world to a meeting in Ottawa to discuss cultural policy. It was the first in a series of meetings of the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP).

"At the same time as the INCP was meeting in Ottawa, a group of artists and cultural groups got together to consult on the process. And in a tribute to the inexhaustible ability of international organizations to create confusing acronyms, they became the International Network on Cultural Diversity (INCD).

U.S. opposition

"By the end of the convention process, the most newsworthy part of the whole deal for much of the world was American isolation. Only Israel joined the United States in voting against the convention, while four other countries abstained.

"American opposition was hamstrung, though, because they weren't members, first of the INCP, where the convention started, and later of UNESCO where it ended up. (The US quit UNESCO in 1984, but rejoined in 2003, in time for the later stages of the convention debate)........

"What's ironic about the US opposition is that, according to a lot of people, the treaty won't really have that much impact......

"For one, the convention's final language left its relationship to other trade agreements very ambiguous. Article 20 says both that it should not be subordinate, 'to any other treaty,' and that it won't modify 'rights and obligations of parties under any other treaty.' In other words, the treaty is both equal to all other international agreements, but doesn't alter them.

"Also, the treaty doesn't really have an effective way of solving disputes, according to Christopher Maule, an economist at Carleton University who has followed trade and culture for decades. 'There's no independent body that people have to adhere to,' Maule said. 'That's not an agreement with any teeth in it.'

"While the treaty does have a procedure for solving disputes, it doesn't punish anyone for ignoring those procedures. If you break a WTO commitment, you can be fined, but if you don't live up to your obligations under this convention, the worst that could happen would be a global finger-wagging."

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