Influence of the WTO and the Unesco Treaty on world trade in culture is unclear

July 2006 -

For some time there have been warnings that national art subsidies are under pressure from agreements that countries make in the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Because of free trade and the related consumer preferences, indigenous cultural products ultimately end up getting the short end of the stick. The international culture market currently has a turnover of 60 billion dollars.

As a sort of life buoy, last year the Unesco Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions issued a statement. This convention stipulated that cultural artefacts represent both cultural as well as economic value. On this basis, member states can implement their own political initiatives and continue to support their cultural industry. The WTO and the EU forbids this, though exceptions apply for the audio-visual sector, for example, sicamagunder the terms of which France is allowed to subsidise its film industry with 500 million euros each year.

Will the Unesco Convention ultimately be able mitigate the efforts undertaken in a WTO context in both a direct and indirect sense in terms of culture? And what do these efforts really involve? Do they involve protecting the vulnerable or stimulating diversity in cultural developments?

SICAmag 30, a publication of the International Cultural Activities Foundation (SICA), is devoted entirely to culture in world trade. You can find this Dutch language magazine at the SICA web site.

A study day was also organised around this issue in collaboration with the Boekman Foundation. This demonstrated that Dutch art institutions' knowledge of the WTO negotiations and the Unesco Treaty is really quite limited. Given the number of people who attended, it appears that many Dutch cultural organisations are quite interested in the subject.

Lawyers and economists reported on the state of affairs. Discussions revealed that the influence of the WTO Treaties and the Unesco Convention is still quite unclear to both experts and representatives of cultural organisations. No conclusions were drawn during this study day, but those attending did agree on one thing: the subject is extremely topical.

with thanks to Cas Smithuijsen and Yvette Gieles