The UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of
Traditional Culture and Folklore (1989):
Actions Undertaken by UNESCO for Its Implementation

Mrs. Noriko Aikawa
Intangible Heritage Unit, UNESCO

This paper concerns actions undertaken by UNESCO for the implementation of the 1989 Recommendation. It covers: (i) the development of UNESCO's programs for traditional and popular cultures since the adoption of the Recommendation in 1989; (ii) the increased interest of Member States in the intangible cultural heritage program; and (iii) activities undertaken by UNESCO to assist efforts to apply the different parts of the Recommendation.

After sixteen years of a long, arduous, and costly process, the UNESCO General Conference established the first international standard-setting instrument for the protection of traditional culture and folklore. A description of this lengthy process is given in the document entitled "A Historical Study on the Preparation of the UNESCO 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore." [1] It is interesting to note here that once this instrument was established, UNESCO Member States showed little interest in its application, in spite of the requirements addressed to Member States on the first page of the Recommendation to apply its provisions, to put its principles and measures into effect, to bring it to the attention of authorities, bodies, and institutions concerned with folklore, and to submit reports to UNESCO on the action they have taken in regard to the Recommendation.

In February 1990, the Director-General of UNESCO sent a letter to Member States inviting them to take all necessary steps to implement the Recommendation and to report to him all actions taken. In spite of a reminder letter sent in April 1991, only six countries submitted reports, and those reports merely reflected measures taken to familiarize the concerned national authorities with the Recommendation. Due to such a small number of reports received from Member States, the Director-General decided not to submit the report to the General Conference in spite of Article 17 of the Rules of Procedure concerning recommendations to Member States and international conventions.

This passive reaction by Member States was prefigured by an expert cited in Canadian attorney Marc Denhez’s 1997 pre-evaluation report [2] on the 1989 Recommendation; the expert warned in 1992 that difficulties might arise because the Recommendation gives neither specific mandate to UNESCO nor any explanation of how it should be implemented. Since the Recommendation is addressed entirely to Member States, UNESCO's role is limited to promoting it and encouraging the implementation of its provisions.

The International Council of Organizations for Folklore Festivals and Folk Art (CIOFF), an NGO having a formal consultative relation with UNESCO, made a valuable contribution to UNESCO's efforts to promote the Recommendation. Its activities included seminars organized by CIOFF Switzerland (1990), CIOFF Italy (1991), and CIOFF Spain (1992), aimed at increasing awareness of the Recommendation within both the public and private sectors and at encouraging its implementation.

UNESCO, for its part, whilst pursuing activities for the promotion of the Recommendation among Member States, was facing a new reality at the onset of the 1990s. Following the end of the Cold War, former Communist countries experienced drastic political and economic mutations. A number of ethnic groups who attained their independence sought their cultural identity in their traditional local cultures. In Latin America, the 1992 commemoration of the 500-year encounter with Europe celebrated a new identity based on hybrid cultures and multilingualism. The rapid expansion of the market economy throughout the world and the tremendous progress of information and communication technology began to transform the world into a uniform economic and cultural space. Under these circumstances, many UNESCO Member States began taking an interest in their traditional popular cultures. They rediscovered their spiritual values and their role as symbolic reference to an identity rooted in the memory of local communities, after the manner of great historical monuments such as the Borobudur Temple, which, as is well known, was restored by UNESCO.

It was felt necessary, therefore, for the Organization to review and reorient its program regarding traditional popular cultures. In 1991, the General Conference decided that the program entitled the “Non-Physical Heritage” be placed between the programs “Enhancement of Cultural Identities” and “Physical Cultural Heritage” in order to “highlight the dual role played by the program of the non-physical heritage.” [3]

In 1992, UNESCO conducted a scientific evaluation of all activities carried out over the two preceding decades in the field of traditional popular cultures. [4] After the evaluation, the title of the program "Non-Physical Cultural Heritage" was modified to "Intangible Cultural Heritage.” In June 1993, UNESCO organized an international conference [5] at its Headquarters to draw up new guidelines for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Program, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The UNESCO/Japan Funds-In-Trust for the Safeguarding and Promotion of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was established in the same year, providing a yearly financial contribution that has given a significant impetus to the program.

To begin with, and as a matter of urgency, the 1993 guidelines urge that the guardians and creators of intangible cultural heritage, as well as policy makers, administrators, and the public, should pay greater respect to their traditional and popular culture and should recognize the need for its preservation and transmission. Secondly, the crucial role of the populations and communities who produce or reproduce cultural forms and creative expressions at the local level is to be stressed. The third issue concerns the priority of revitalizing these cultures by adapting them to the contemporary world. In this respect, the selection of the aspects of culture to be revitalized should be made by people of the local community concerned. Also urgent is the safeguarding of heritages threatened by extinction, particularly those of Indigenous and minority peoples. The guidelines also include the following precautions to be taken in conceiving and implementing the program:

Not only its priorities but also UNESCO's role and methods of work should match the needs of contemporary realities; that is, UNESCO should play instigating and catalyzing roles. As an instigator, it encourages Member States or specialized institutions to launch projects given priority by UNESCO’s General Conference. As a catalyst, it creates partnerships and networks and seeks financial support from foundations and other partners. UNESCO is called upon to continue the following methods: (i) create networks of institutions and specialists, (ii) help Member States to define their strategic options, (iii) support the organization of training courses and festivals, and (iv) encourage the mass media to disseminate the intangible cultural heritage.

It should be noted that the above guidelines suggest new policies complementary to the principles and measures defined in the 1989 Recommendation. Together with the 1989 Recommendation, they laid the foundations for the UNESCO Medium-Term Strategies for 1996-2001 [6] in the field of Intangible Cultural Heritage. A number of international and regional projects -- particularly pilot projects for Vietnam, Hungary, Mexico, and Niger endorsed by the International Consultation of 1993 -- were implemented. A new project entitled "Red Book of Endangered Languages" was also launched.

In October 1993, the UNESCO Executive Board adopted the decision [7] presented by the Republic of Korea inviting Member States to take necessary steps concerning “living cultural property” (“Living Human Treasures”) as an effective means to implement the Recommendation of 1989. The Republic of Korea proposed that UNESCO Member States establish a system to give official recognition to persons possessing exceptional artistry and traditional skills in order to encourage the development and transmission of such talent and know-how and safeguard the traditional cultural heritage. UNESCO made a survey of this system, which has been successfully practiced by some countries of East Asia, such as the Republic of Korea, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines, since the 1950s and drew up guidelines [8] explaining how to establish the system and how it is to function. UNESCO hopes that this project will compensate for a lack in the Recommendation regarding the recognition and protection of these practitioners of traditional cultures. UNESCO’s role is to provide assistance, often in the form of consultants, to help the authorities of Member States accomplish the following: (i) establish legislation to protect the intangible heritage; (ii) identify the possessors of relevant know-how; (iii) formulate a national register of types of intangible heritage to be protected; and lastly (iv) prepare a roster of potential candidates for inclusion on the list of National Living Human Treasures. UNESCO is also organizing training workshops twice a year to show the successful experience of some countries and has recently invited all Member States to apply to attend these workshops. Nearly fifty Member States have expressed interest in establishing a program of Living Human Treasures.

In November 1993, the UNESCO General Conference adopted a Draft Resolution presented by Hungary that initiates a pilot project to create in Budapest an interregional network of research institutions specializing in traditional cultures of Eastern and Central Europe. The project was proposed by the Hungarian authorities as a follow-up action to the recommendation endorsed by the international expert meeting in June 1993. The European Center for Traditional Culture (ECTC) was thus created with the support of UNESCO. The Center has contributed to the wide dissemination of the 1989 Recommendation in Eastern and Central Europe and has compiled a substantial database on institutions specializing in European traditional popular cultures.

In 1995, the Czech Republic took an initiative which paved the way for a series of assessments of the application of the Recommendation. It organized, in collaboration with UNESCO, the first seminar on the application of the 1989 Recommendation for countries of Eastern and Central Europe. The UNESCO Secretariat and the Institute of Folklore in Strážnice, led by Professor Josef Jancar, drew up a questionnaire to survey the state of the identification, conservation, preservation, dissemination, and protection of and international cooperation regarding traditional and popular cultures in the countries concerned. The replies to the questionnaire sent to all the National Commissions concerned were assembled and analyzed by the Strážnice Institute and presented to the seminar. Professor Jancar should be commended for agreeing to update the report in April 1999 by means of a second questionnaire. On the basis of recommendations put forward by the seminar, the authorities of the Czech Republic presented a Draft Resolution to the UNESCO General Conference in 1995, which thereupon decided that a worldwide appraisal of the safeguarding of traditional and folk heritage should be carried out, taking as its reference point the 1989 Recommendation. [9]

 A series of surveys was then carried out through a detailed questionnaire addressed to Member States, and a total of eight seminars were organized in different parts of the world. The present Conference is the culmination of these regional seminars -- Czech Republic (1995), [10] Mexico (1997), [11] Japan (1998), [12] Finland (1998), [13] Uzbekistan (1998), [14] Ghana (1999), [15] New Caledonia (1999), [16] and Lebanon (1999). [17] These surveys and seminars contributed significantly to drawing the attention of Member States to the Recommendation.

Since 1995, increased interest in the concept of “intangible cultural heritage" has been expressed by Member States through UNESCO's two governing bodies, the General Conference and the Executive Board. For example, in October 1996, the Executive Board recommended that, in preparing the 1998-1999 Program, special attention should be given to formulating and implementing strategies for the safeguarding, revitalizing, and disseminating of intangible heritage. [18] In June 1997, the Executive Board again recommended that emphasis be placed on the preservation of oral traditions, endangered languages, and forms of cultural expression, particularly those of minorities and Indigenous peoples. [19] The debate of the General Conference in October 1997 confirmed the strong interest of Member States in the intangible cultural heritage and revealed that the Intangible Cultural Heritage Program should be given one of the highest priorities in the cultural field. [20]

Member States’ commitment to intangible cultural heritage was strengthened by a Draft Resolution presented by Morocco and supported by many countries including Saudi Arabia, Cape Verde, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Lebanon, Mali, and Venezuela. Taking the 1989 Recommendation as its reference point, the Resolution urged the General Conference to highlight the importance of the intangible cultural heritage for peoples and nations by proclaiming cultural spaces or forms of cultural expression part of the “Oral Heritage of Humanity.” After an extensive debate, the General Conference adopted this Resolution unanimously. [21]

The purpose of this project is to pay tribute to outstanding masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. This program will enable UNESCO to proclaim biennially several masterpieces of oral and intangible cultural heritage. An international jury, composed of nine members, will select and recommend to the Director-General a list of candidates to be submitted for this award. This project was initially proposed as one means to fill a gap in the World Heritage List, which does not apply to the intangible cultural heritage. The proposal, submitted by the Director-General to two 1998 sessions of UNESCO's Executive Board, generated a lively discussion, in which it was decided to extend the scope of the project, henceforth called “Proclamation of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” [22]

It is interesting to observe that throughout these numerous debates, wishes were expressed to broaden the concept of intangible heritage, which was already a vast area in the 1989 Recommendation. Discussions also placed emphasis on the important role of possessors of knowledge, techniques, and artistry of intangible heritage, as well as on the indispensable role of the local community. More specifically, Member States stressed intangible heritage as a means of affirming cultural identity and its contemporary socio-cultural role in communities. The Director-General of UNESCO was also requested to study means of disseminating, preserving, and protecting intangible heritage for the benefit of its communities of origin. [23]

Amongst its efforts to promote the 1989 Recommendation, UNESCO has undertaken various activities in addition to the three major projects already described. In the field of identification of folklore, a handbook for collecting musical heritage [24] was published, and a handbook for collecting know-how of traditional architecture is now under preparation. A Guide for the Preparation of Primary School African Music Teaching Manuals was also published. [25]

Regarding conservation, a network of folklore archives of Balkan countries was created by UNESCO in Sofia in 1995. With respect to preservation, UNESCO organized an intergovernmental conference on "African language policies." [26] It also helped the governments of Vietnam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic draft plans for safeguarding, revitalizing, and disseminating intangible heritage of minority and Indigenous groups. [27] Two books on the intangible heritage of Indigenous peoples of these respective countries will be published soon.

For the dissemination of folklore, UNESCO has supported a number of festivals including the Market of African Performing Arts (MASA) (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, 1997, 1999), the Fez Sacred Music Festival (Morocco, 1996, 1997), and the Samarkand Eastern Music Festival (Samarkand, Uzbekistan, 1997, 1999). The Organization published an Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing [28] in English, French, and Spanish. It continued its long-standing collaboration with the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) and the International Music Council (IMC) in producing the prestigious UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World. Initially launched in 1960, this collection is the oldest of its kind and has grown to over one hundred titles. UNESCO is proud to have played a significant role in enabling the world’s peoples to discover one another’s music.

In the protection of folklore, UNESCO assisted the Strážnice Institute with the preparation and publication of Principles of Traditional Culture and Folklore Protection Against Inappropriate Commercialization [29] and Ethics and Traditional Folk Culture.. [30] UNESCO and WIPO organized a World Forum on the protection of Folklore in Phuket in 1997. [31] As a follow-up to this Forum, the two organizations held four regional seminars about legal measures that might be recommended regarding traditional knowledge and artistic expressions: for Africa (Pretoria, March 1999), [32] for the Asia-Pacific region (Hanoi, April 1999), [33] for the Arab States (Tunis, May 1999), [34] and for Latin America and the Caribbean (Quito, June 1999). [35] All of these meetings reached the conclusion that intellectual property law does not give appropriate protection to expressions of folklore or traditional knowledge, and a sui generis regime specific to this purpose needs to be developed.

Finally, in the furthering of international cooperation, UNESCO's priorities have been networking and training. Efforts have been made to create a network of traditional-music institutions for Africa and for Arab countries. As mentioned earlier, a network of folklore institutions in Europe has been developed, based on the European Center for Traditional Culture (ECTC) in Budapest. A network of bamboo-work specialists is being created in cooperation with the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). In training, several regional courses have been organized in the field of traditional music and handicraft.

During the last decade the 1989 Recommendation has served as a principal reference document for all of the aforesaid activities. The time has come today to reflect upon the Recommendation as an instrument of policy in contemporary and future contexts for both UNESCO and its Member States.

[1] In this volume

[2] Marc Denhez, Pre-evaluation of the 1989 UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, 1997.

[3] 26 C/5 Approved.

[4] Protection of the Intangible Cultural Heritage: Survey and New Prospects. Serge Gruzinski. UNESCO document CLT/ACL/IH-18.3.93.

[5] UNESCO Final Report: International Consultation on New Perspectives for UNESCO Programme: The Intangible Cultural Heritage, June 1993.

[6] 28 C/4 Approved.

[7] 142 Ex/Decisions, 10 December 1993.

[8] Guidelines: "Living Human Treasures" System.

[9] 28 C/5 Approved.

[10] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in Central European countries. Strážnice, 19-23 June 1995.

[11] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore of Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico, 22-24 September 1997.

[12] Preservation and promotion of the intangible cultural heritage, Tokyo, 24 Feb.-2 March 1998.

[13] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in Western European countries, Joensuu, 4-6 September 1998.

[14] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Tashkent, 6-8 October 1998.

[15] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in African countries, Accra, 26-28 January 1999.

[16] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in the countries of the Pacific, Noumea, 11-12 February 1999.

[17] Regional seminar on the application of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in the Arab States, Beirut, 10-12 May 1999.

[18] Preliminary proposals concerning the Draft Programme and Budget for 1998-99 (29 C/5) - (150 Ex/5, Part I and Add. and Parts II and III and 150 Ex/INF. 7, 150 Ex/INF.8 and 150 Ex/INF.9, para. 49).   

[19] 29 C/6 Recommendations by the Executive Board on the Draft Programme and Budget for 1998-99, Paris, 1997. 

[20] General Conference, 29th Session, Reply by the ADG/CLT to Commission IV-Debate I.

[21] Records of the General Conference, Paris, 21 October – 12 November 1997, Vol. I Resolutions, No. 23.

[22] 154 Ex/13, 19 March 1998, 155 Ex/15, 25 August 1998, 155 Ex/15 Add. & Corr. 155 Ex/Decisions.

[23] "Further invites the Director-General to study means of disseminating, preserving and protecting these immaterial or intangible cultural spaces for the benefit of the communities of origin", para. 12, 3.5.1, 154 EX/Decisions.

[24] Genevičve Dournon, Guide pour la collecte des musiques et instruments traditionnels, (Paris: UNESCO, 1981).

[25] J.H. Kwabena Nketia, ed., A Guide for the preparation of Primary School African Music Teaching Manuals. (Ghana: Afram Publications Limited, 1999).

[26] Intergovernmental Conference on Language Policies in Africa, Harare, 17-21 March 1997.

[27] International expert meeting for the safeguarding and promotion of the intangible cultural heritage of minority groups in Vietnam, Hanoi, 15-18 March 1994; International expert meeting for the safeguarding and promotion of the intangible cultural heritage of the minority groups of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Vientiane, 7-11 October 1996.

[28] Stephen A. Wurm, Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing. (Paris: UNESCO Press, 1996).

[29] Principles of Traditional Culture and Folklore Protection Against Inappropriate Commercialization. (Strážnice: Institute of Folk Culture, 1997).

[30] Ethics and Traditional Folk Culture: Study on Moral Consciousness and Conduct in Manifestations of Traditional Folk Culture (Strážnice: Ustave Lidové Kultury, 1999).

[31] UNESCO-WIPO World Forum on the Protection of Folklore, Phuket, Thailand, April 8 to 10, 1997 (Paris/Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 1996).

[32] UNESCO-WIPO African Regional Consultation on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore, Pretoria, 23-25 March 1999.

[33] UNESCO-WIPO Regional Consultation on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore for Countries of Asia and the Pacific, Hanoi, 21-23 April 1999.

[34] UNESCO-WIPO Regional Consultation on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore for Arab Countries, Tunis, 25-27 May 1999.

[35] UNESCO-WIPO Regional Consultation on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore for Latin America and the Caribbean, Quito, 14-16 June 1999.