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U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Louise Oliver

U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Louise Oliver With Foreign Journalists

On-the-Record Roundtable on the Convention on Cultural Diversity
Paris, France
October 21, 2005

(12:30 p.m. EDT)

MR. DENIG: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Denig and I'm in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs here at the Department of State. I would like to introduce to our journalists, Ambassador Louise Oliver, United States Ambassador to UNESCO. Welcome, Ambassador.


MR. DENIG: And I would like to introduce to you our four journalists. To my immediate left is Giampiero Gramaglia from the Italian News Agency ANSA.

MR. GRAMALIA: Nice to meet you.

MR. DENIG: Next to him is Akina Naguma from Tokyo Shimbun Newspaper, Japan. And then we have Jyri Raivio from the Finnish Newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

MR. VAVIO: Hello.

MR. DENIG: And finally we have Jeff Thomas from the Washington File, the Department of State's in-house news wire.

So Ambassador Oliver, I'll let you get started, please.

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Thank you very much. Well, as you can imagine, this is the end of a long couple of weeks. And before we get started in a conversation, I would like to read a statement to you, just so -- and give you something to work from.

So let me start by saying that the United States is very disappointed by yesterday's vote in which the UNESCO General Conference adopted this Convention on the Protection and Promotions of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

The Convention, as it is written, could be used by states to justify policies to control the cultural lives of their citizens, policies that a state might use to control what its citizens can see; what they can read; what they can listen to; and what they can do. We believe -- in keeping with existing conventions -- that the world must affirm the right of all people to make those decisions for themselves.

The United States fully supports UNESCO's key priorities. But we also note today that UNESCO's budget did not go far enough in shifting resources away from ineffective activities towards those programs and priorities that get to the heart of UNESCO's mission. Moreover, the program and budget discussed today included funds for the implementation of the Convention, which we oppose. It is for these reasons the United States voted against the UNESCO's program and budget today.

We are also concerned that the vague and contradictory language of the Convention is too open to misinterpretation. For example, there are provisions that could be misinterpreted to undermine the clear and unambiguous obligations undertaken by governments in other international agreements, such as in the fields of human rights or trade.

Because our position is based on principles that we hold dear and not on the basis of pressure to do what is politically popular, we cannot in good conscience subscribe to this Convention. You can be assured that we will continue the effort to promote genuine cultural diversity. We will do so by continuing to work for individual liberty and the ability of people around the world to receive and impart diverse cultural influences, including the right to enjoy cultural expressions of their own choosing, not those prescribed by their governments.

In that statement, you will have most of the reasons why we felt obligated not to support this Convention. There's one other thing that I would like to say to you, which is that in the conversations with the press that I have had over the last few days, I've been interested and a bit disturbed that I received so many questions about Hollywood because in fact, we have been talking about cultural diversity. We've been talking about the fact that the U.S. is the most culturally -- one, certainly, of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, yet we would have supported a Convention that actually promoted true cultural diversity. And I can go into more details as to why we were profoundly disturbed with both the process by which this Convention was negotiated and the substance that resulted from what we considered was a very (inaudible) process.

But let me just mention Hollywood because that seems to be on everyone's mind, at least from the minds of the press and I would say also from statements by officials of certain governments. But let me say that actually there is good U.S.-Europe film cooperation, both on the level of production and on the level of seeking protection for intellectual property rights. The problem is that the French and others are expanding the lists of cultural objects and things to now include wine and foie gras. The U.S. has noted that they have started designating agricultural products as cultural goods and we are not sure where the expansion of the lists of cultural goods will end.

And therefore, for us, a question would be where will it end? And we would encourage journalists -- you and others -- to ask the French Government just exactly how big is that list. It goes back to one of our real problems with this Convention, which is the lack of definition of terms used in the Convention, the vague language, the contradictory language, the ambiguous language -- these things are not made clear. And the result of that is what we are starting to see in terms of how this Convention could be misused and misinterpreted by governments.

So with that, I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

MR. DENIG: Thank you very much, Madame Ambassador. Who wants to go first?

QUESTION: Giampiero Gramaglia, Italian News Agency ANSA. What happens now, Ambassador? What are the steps you or your government can take to avoid the negative impact of this Convention in your mind?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Well, the Convention now has been adopted by UNESCO's member states but, of course, it must be ratified by individual countries before it can take effect. At UNESCO, it requires 30 countries out of a 191 to ratify an instrument before it comes into force. So we will watch the process of ratification.

More importantly, we will watch very closely how it is going to be used because one of the things that has happened over this last week, as we have made our interventions, as we have discussed this with many member states, is that it is clear that for most member states at UNESCO, this Convention is supposed to be about culture and it is supposed to be something that promotes cultural diversity. I think that there would be a real disappointment among many member states if instead it was misinterpreted and misused to try and erect barriers to undermine in any way other international obligations in trade and human rights.

So I think a careful watch, as we go forward, is what we will be doing, many other states will be doing exactly the same thing. And in the mean time, we will continue to do what we've always done, which is to engage with other countries, other cultures around the world, and to actively promote cultural diversity through partnerships and cultural exchange, open borders, freedom of people to exchange what they will when they want to.

QUESTION: In a kind of follow up. Then, do you consider withdrawing from the UNESCO -- the possibility of withdrawing?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: We have engaged in UNESCO for the past two years, actively and energetically. In the area of program, of which UNESCO has a great deal, we have worked well with other countries, trying to strengthen UNESCO's programs in education, in science, in other aspects of culture, in information communication. I think that one thing I might mention, I might bring up, is the fact that this Convention on cultural diversity was one of three instruments that we found ourselves negotiating as soon as we got back to UNESCO.

The two others were a -- one was a declaration on principles of bioethics. One would have expected that putting a framework of bioethical principles in place would have been extremely difficult and extremely contentious but in fact the process was open, it was transparent, there was a great deal of dialogue, negotiation, and in the end the U.S. was able to join consensus on that instrument.

The same thing is true on the instrument on anti-doping in sports. Again, dialogue, discussion, negotiation, resulted in the end to an instrument that the U.S. could join consensus on.

I think what we need to look at here very carefully is the fact that UNESCO's normal spirit of openness and dialogue was not followed in this case. And in fact, that is why I say that the process gives us as much -- disturbed us as much as the substance because in this case, the process did not lead to negotiation and it did not lead to U.S. concerns being incorporated within this Convention, which is one reason we are where we are today.

You know, now I have been told and I've heard, perhaps read, that this had been negotiated over a long period of time. Well, certainly, the idea of a Convention in cultural diversity is an idea that has been around for quite a long period of time, of course, very aggressively, particularly by the French and the Canadians.

So yes, the idea has been discussed and we did have a series of meetings on an original document that was put together, drafted by a group of experts and then began to be negotiated. What happened here with this instrument is that in mid-April, we were given a completely new text -- completely new text -- and we were told to negotiate that new text in May at the May intergovernmental meeting. That meant 34 articles, with more than a 120 countries, meeting for less than two weeks -- we were supposed to negotiate a brand new text. At the end of that meeting, we were told that that was it. The intergovernmental meeting adopted that text. We were told no more negotiations. We were told not a single word could be changed, not a single comma could be changed. Now, this was June 4th and here we are in a multilateral organization, supposedly dedicated to dialogue and discussion, and the United States is told that there would be not a single word changed.

So we have spent the last four months trying to get our concerns, our suggestions, our ideas incorporated into this text so that we could have a Convention promoting cultural diversity that we could support. But instead, every attempt was rebuffed. Now, that causes us very serious concerns because that is not the way UNESCO is supposed to operate. I might add it has made many other countries concerned as well. And I think when the other countries really understood the depth of our concern when Monday afternoon we went through 28 amendments representing different ideas that we have tried -- tried -- to have listened to during the last four months. So instead, I went through all 28 amendments, starting with the fact that we suggested adding the words "respect for" -- respect for cultural diversity in the instrument. Well, that certainly was not controversial and in fact, we were told constantly that it is not just cultural diversity that we are trying to accomplish here, but respect for different cultures.

So we proposed an amendment to that effect and it was rejected. When we tried to propose ways of defining terms so that language could be more clear, so that we would not have the kind of issues that I just talked about a few minutes ago in terms of cultural goods and the ever expanding list, again, it was rejected. When we suggested that perhaps the clarity of this instrument should be established by putting simply the phrase "consistent with international obligations," which would have made it clear, it was rejected. This was on Monday. And the reason that all of these things were rejected on Monday was the same reason that we have been unable to get our voice heard since June 4th and that was because it had been determined by a group of countries that nothing in this document should be changed.

So that is why I say that not only do we have concerns with the substance, but also with the process. To get to your question, what does that mean about our relationship with UNESCO? Well, certainly it causes us great concern and certainly we will be discussing this much more in great detail when I am back in Washington next week. But as I say, it is something that should be seen as -- for whatever reason not typical the way UNESCO has operated in other areas, so again, the question for journalists should be -- why? Why was this negotiated this way? Why was UNESCO's normal procedure and normal openness to dialogue and discussion not permitted for this instrument?

MR. DENIG: Let's go to Finland.

QUESTION: Ambassador, I'm Jyri Raivio, Helsingin Sanomat of Finland. You mentioned that U.S. was not able to support the acceptance of the UNESCO budget but what's the practical consequence of this decision? And how big the part of this budget does the U.S. take?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: The budget is -- we have program and budget for the next two years. UNESCO is on a two-year cycle so this is the $610 million program and budget for the next two years. In order to be adopted, two-thirds of UNESCO's member states need to support the program and budget. That did occur. So therefore, this program and budget will be used as a basis for UNESCO's work for the next two years.

The fact that we voted no on this budget, again, emphasizes the fact that we are unhappy with the budget in terms of the fact that it does support a Convention that we oppose. But as I said in my statement a few minutes ago, we also do not think that UNESCO has gone far enough in terms of focusing on activities, focusing on its priorities so that it can have quality programs that really make a difference around the world. Almost every country in UNESCO has stated over and over again, in the last two years since we've been part of this organization, that education is the priority of priorities. And so we are saying put resources in education, put resources in areas -- science and other areas, which are areas where UNESCO could really make a difference -- put funds, put resources in real natural and cultural preservation. And there are programs in UNESCO that do that.

Our question has been a broader question, which is, what is the role of UNESCO's programs versus its normative instruments -- a well thought out normative instrument, a well thought declaration or convention that achieves consensus, can perhaps do something real and positive.

But, I repeat, a convention that was negotiated quickly, that seemed to be more interested in being negotiated as quickly as possible so that it could be adopted at this General Conference, where speed seems to be something that people cared about more than quality -- well, that is something that we would -- we do have concerns about.

QUESTION: Can I have a follow up? Ambassador, do you think that the U.S. will withhold its dues to UNESCO and how it (inaudible) those dues? And another small thing, you mentioned a group of countries that had decided that this text will not be changed. Which are these countries that have made such an issue?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Well, the driving forces behind this Convention for the last few years have always been -- and this was actually repeated by Professor Asmal last night in a speech he gave. He was the Chairman of the entire UNESCO intergovernmental process. And he said that he hoped this text would not be seen as a French text or a Canadian text or an EU text. He mentioned those two countries and the EU specifically because it has been seen by most of the countries at UNESCO that those countries and the EU have been the driving force behind this. Now, that is not to say that there are not other countries, which very much support this as well -- certainly, Brazil, South Africa and there are other countries that also have been very supportive of it.

And as you know from the vote, most of UNESCO's countries, in fact, ended up supporting this Convention. But there are also numbers of statements last night, after the vote, which made the point very clearly that for most countries at UNESCO, this is supposed to be a positive Convention that promotes cultural diversity, that provides a country with the respect that they feel that their culture should have, that it is not an instrument that should be used to undermine human rights or trade obligations. That was quite clear.

So I think that in terms of what comes next and how the U.S. responds, as I said a few minutes ago, it really remains to be seen how it's used. I might just make one other point in terms of the process, in terms of the countries driving it. When UNESCO's General Conference, two years ago, 2003, asked the Director General to come up with this convention, the instructions were to come up with a preliminary text, accompanied by a preliminary report setting out the scope of a possible convention in this area. Now, that was 2003. In 2005, we fully expected that we would have a preliminary text and that outstanding issues would continue to be negotiated so that we could have a consensus document. And I should add that UNESCO's Director General has repeatedly said that he wanted a consensus document.

But due to the desire for speed, the text that was adopted yesterday was not adopted as a preliminary text but rather as a final text as the UNESCO convention. So again, this whole process has led to what we feel is a convention that can be misused, misinterpreted, and we feel that way because the time was not spent in clarifying the language, in making it unambiguous, in clarifying its relationship with other instruments and the kinds of things that I've been talking about repeatedly all week.

MR. DENIG: Jyri, did she answer your question for you?

QUESTION: I still take claim to my favorite subject. It's the money.

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: The money. Of course. (Laughter.) I should have known it was the money. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: The U.S. paid for this program and will the U.S. pay?

MR. DENIG: Well, the question he had raised is, will the U.S. withhold its dues from UNESCO.

QUESTION: Or from the program.

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Well, that is not a decision that is for me to comment on. This is something that will be decided elsewhere. In terms of the U.S.'s share of UNESCO's budget, it is, in fact, $134 million in the $610 million two-year budget. So that is the U.S. share. It's 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. And what happens in terms of our response? As I said, that is really not mine to comment.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go back to ANSA.

QUESTION: Yeah, two questions, Ambassador. The first, sometime, we have the feeling that this issue of UNESCO convention is a big issue because United States are putting so much relevance and so much importance to that, because normally, the UNESCO conventions are approved, nobody cares, neither before, neither after. So why all this relevance?

And second question, I understand from you was that there was French pressure for this Convention being adopted French, Canadian, European -- which is a large amount of countries. But at the end of the day, the result of the vote wasn't close. It was a large vote in favor and if I understand right, just Israel voted with United States. So is there not a frustration in seeing this result for you and perhaps a problem of tactics in dealing with the vote or in dealing with the alliances in view of the vote?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: No, I don't think it has anything to do with tactics. I think it has to do with the way we see a legally binding instrument. We, again, are talking about a legally binding instrument. Now, what we were told by a number of countries is, first of all, as I just said, they see this in terms of having an intent to really promote cultural diversity, to help in the strengthening of culture. Most countries do not see this as a tool that should be used in any way to affect trade negotiations or to undermine human rights.

Our concern -- and the reason we cannot support this and did not support it -- is for two reasons: one is, we could not be associated with a document that could be misused, could be misinterpreted in ways that might have the effect of undermining human rights or getting involved inappropriately in trade negotiations.

So without the clarity that we needed and without the unambiguous language that we suggested, it made it impossible for us to support it. Now, for a number of other countries, they are also not all that happy with it, but we hear from many that they can live with it. Now, they can live with it, that is their right to decide that; but we could not support a document simply because we could live with it. We only support legally binding instruments in areas as important as this when we know what they are supposed to achieve and expect that they will in fact have a positive result without putting us and others at risk of potential negative results due to the potential to misuse interpretation of the document.

And you also have a second question.

QUESTION: Well, you already in some way answered because I asked you, in fact, that the UNESCO conventions -- who cares about it? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: You can say that -- and it is true. It is true that because of our opposition, this Convention has gotten a great deal more publicity and notice that it would probably otherwise have gotten. I think that is a true statement. But that's okay with us because we're standing up for principle, we're standing up for freedom, we think this document is all about freedom and we think that it is a good thing to talk about the role of freedom in cultural diversity because that is what cultural diversity is built upon. It's built on the right of individuals to decide, what they want to do, what they want to read and what they want to see.

So it is, at the end of the day, a document about freedom and the U.S. absolutely has to stand firm on things of value that are as important as that to us. I might add that, again, in the last week since we have been talking so publicly about this in ways that we were unable to do previously, I had many countries come up and tell me that -- though they will continue to and did support the Convention, they thanked us for making our views known; they thanked for alerting to the possible misuse of this Convention; and they agreed that it must be watched carefully and made sure that it is used correctly as intended and not to create any problems in the areas that in which it could be misused.

So, in fact, even though we did not have many votes with us and we -- there were an addition to the two that voted against the Convention, there were four abstentions -- but aside from that, it is gratifying to us that so many countries listened carefully to what we had to say, that they found it valuable and appreciated our concerns being voiced during this General Conference.

QUESTION: Can I ask you one small thing, which is not cultural diversity but another thing that you mentioned was the doping agreement that you said that everybody, including the U.S., was able to join that particular document. What's the practical consequence of that going to be in (inaudible) no doping in sports?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Well, you asked exactly the right question. What's the practical consequence going to be? And that is, of course, the question we asked of all these normative instruments -- what's the practical consequence? We don't know. It all depends on how it is interpreted, who adopts it, whether they institute national policies on the basis of it. We really don't know.

What we do know is that that document, that Convention, is going to go forward with consensus support from UNESCO. Where it has, what it does, we're not sure. That is why, not only the U.S. but many countries at UNESCO, want to spend the next two years focusing on UNESCO's programs where we feel we have a better chance to creating quality programs that actually produce practical and concrete results, rather than these instruments, which may or may not, depending on how they are implemented down the road.

I do have another press interview that I need to do, so I don't have much time left. Is there a last question anyone would like to ask?

MR. DENIG: Jeff, do you have anything? No?

QUESTION: Well, I'll just -- so the U.S. is not going to try to have this amended or seek some kind of declaration in another forum, clarifying that this is not to be used in some of these negative ways?

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: There is no opportunity to have it amended it officially at this point. That's what we've been struggling to do over the last four months. But we did hear yesterday, in many explanations of votes that followed the voting process, we heard countries saying very much the same things that we've been saying and that it's not supposed to modify or inject other international obligations, that it must not be misused in any way that might undermine human rights, that it must be used with the intent of the instrument of the Convention, which is to promote cultural diversity not to use it to erect barriers of any sort. So we heard many, many voices saying that yesterday after the vote. And I think -- and when I say many voices, probably 15 or so -- but there were many more who were saying the same thing privately.

So I think that the result of the past couple of weeks, particularly the result of the last week, where we have been listened to in a process that finally enabled our voice to be heard, that finally enabled countries to hear the kind of ideas and suggestions that we would have liked to have seen had we been allowed to discuss them earlier, I think that perhaps it would have been a different Convention, one that we would have been able to join.

And that, I think, at the end of the day, what we feel is deep regret, deep disappointment at the loss of an opportunity because we had an opportunity here to do something really good at UNESCO in the area of promoting cultural diversity. But for all kinds of reasons, that opportunity was not realized. We now have a Convention going forth that we cannot support and this has raised many questions at UNESCO -- how a country like the United States, which is so diverse, so open, so dedicated and devoted to celebrating and cherishing cultural diversity, how could a country like this not support a Convention on cultural diversity?

And that is what we have been trying to explain over and over again, that it is very disappointing to us that we were faced with a Convention document that, in our view, did not protect -- with clear, unambiguous language -- freedoms that we hold very dear and we would not want to be associated with anything that might compromise those freedoms.

MR. DENIG: Thank you very much, Madame Ambassador.


MR. DENIG: We appreciate it.

AMBASSADOR OLIVER: Thank you very much. Thank you for your interest and I hope you will follow this. I hope you will look at it carefully. I hope you all ask some questions and not just listen to some of the very broad statements that have been said in the press about Hollywood or about some of the issues of the U.S. and cultural diversity. It is a very disappointing moment, and I hope that our conversation this evening has helped you understand a little bit how we feel about a Convention on cultural diversity that we were unable to support.

MR. DENIG: Thank you very much.

Released on November 8, 2005


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