Meg: After joining UNESCO, you were very involved in the development of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Could you explain the different parties involved, and your role, as well as what you learned in the process?
Cecile: The development of an international convention is a vast undertaking. A convention is a legal instrument that is adopted at the international level, in a forum like the U.N. or UNESCO, and that is elaborated or voted by all or the majority of the countries of the world. From an idea, or an intention, a legal text has to be created on which ideally 193 UNESCO Member States are in agreement. The devil is in the details, one can imagine the difficulty! The process is lengthy, often six years, between the time the General Conference requests the study of a particular issue, and the final adoption of the text.
In November 1999, I witnessed the birth of the idea and the development of this instrument through all its stages. Numerous meetings of experts and of all Member States of UNESCO had to be organized to agree on even the definition of intangible cultural heritage.
For the 2003 Convention, at the outset, the challenge was mainly to compensate the strong “under-representation” of developing countries in the prestigious World Heritage List, which deals with physical sites. The rich countries of the “North” were pretty skeptical at first about this vague notion, which seemed to risk almost all the cultural events being recognized as intangible heritage so long as a community so decides. Thus there was a lot of “North-South” tension, which was defused as we advanced with the drafting, since all countries found that intangible heritage was a powerful reality in all countries, whatever their level of development. The Convention was adopted almost unanimously, without a vote against.
Meg: I understand that you accompanied UNESCO’s Director-General in his official visits to more than eighty countries. Having experienced so many different cultures, what have been some of your most significant insights about human nature and cultural expression?
Cecile: I have traveled extensively with the Director-General, on average twice a month, visiting three countries successively almost every time. I especially accompanied him in Latin America and Africa, but also sometimes in Asia or in Europe. One of the things that really struck me was the protocol. Each country has its own protocol, which is very different from country to country.
I remember a country in Eastern Europe where we had to practice the positioning and greeting to the President before the meeting with a cross on the carpet so we knew where we each had to stand. When the President arrived, he was very natural and warm, and we forgot this formality immediately. In Central America, we came to the presidency without any security barrier filtering us, we parked outside the building into which people seemed to enter freely, and the President welcomed us in the lobby among all those who visited the building. Two illustrative extremes of cultural diversity!
We had the opportunity to attend outstanding cultural events, and visit many World Heritage sites. But the thing that struck me the most was the great similarity, despite their differences, of all these people met, similarity in the reception, the desire for dialogue and exchange, the desire to be understood and appreciated. It gives me the feeling that mankind is one big family, with which it is very easy to identify, even when appearances seem so different.
Meg: I believe you are a proponent that recognition of cultural differences can promote international co-operation—can you explain that?
Cecile: Yes, to recognize cultural diversity is to acknowledge our fraternity, to know how to recognize oneself in the Other.
I remember an amazing experience where two photographers, one from the Central part of France, one from Mongolia, had to document the pastoralism traditions that were observed in the two countries, the Mongolian documenting French pastoralism, the French doing the same in Mongolia. They shared their work which resulted in a very interesting exhibition and book. The French captured essentially the men on their horses travelling in immense territories, whereas the Mongolian was amazed by the fact that the French shepherds were using motorbike to lead their herd, and took a lot of pictures of them. What one could realize in looking the exhibition is that there are not so many differences between a Mongolian and a French shepherd, except maybe their externalities–a horse or a motorbike. The real job, the relation with the animal, the know-how, are incredibly similar.
When one succeeds in acknowledging this fraternity, one is inevitably driven to cooperate, because we cannot live in a family without sharing and helping each other. Respect for cultural diversity in all its manifestations, without any notion of hierarchy or value judgments, allows each community to feel respected and respectable, and helps one feel confident to participate on an equal basis in the common destiny of humanity.
The tendency to nationalism is often a reaction to a threat, real or perceived. Each culture brings its contribution to development and progress, each culture evolves in response to its environment and its history, and stigmatization of certain expressions or cultural events are often the result of ignorance and lack of understanding of their true meaning. Great progress and an easing of many conflicts will be acquired when we are better able to truly understand and respect each other.