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Address by

Mr Koichiro Matsuura

Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

(UNESCO) on the occasion of the information meeting with the Permanent Delegations on the project "Proclamation of masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity"

UNESCO, 5 May 2000

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a very great pleasure to me to address you on the occasion of this information

meeting concerning the project "Proclamation of masterpieces of the oral and intangible

heritage of humanity".

Last week I sent a letter to all the Member States asking them to propose a cultural

space or a form of popular and traditional cultural expression of a nature to be declared a

"masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity". The guide to the

implementation of the project was enclosed with this letter, to which the Regulations

approved by the Executive Board at its 155th session were attached.

It seemed advisable to hold this meeting today to enable my colleagues in the Culture

Sector, particularly those in the Intangible Heritage Unit, to elucidate with you any points that

might require clarification.

On 25 February this year, the "Day of Dialogue" with the Executive Board Members, I

said how important I believe the intangible heritage to be. The sole purpose of my presence

on this rostrum today is to confirm the priority that I am giving to this programme for the


What are the reasons for this?

While globalization entails increasing economic interdependence and a stepping up of

cultural interaction, it also presents a risk in the cultural sphere, for it threatens the survival of

many forms of cultural expression. This impoverishment of cultural life affects us all as world

citizens. Culture, which is intrinsically plural, diverse and constantly evolving, weaves the

fabric of our societies, our memory, our manifold identities, our creativity - in short, our inner


The preservation and promotion of cultural diversity are fundamental missions of

UNESCO. In the field of the tangible heritage, the Organization is regarded as a pioneer,

having set up an admirable instrument, which is partly responsible for its renown. As a former

Chairperson of the World Heritage Committee, I have had the opportunity of appreciating

how essential to effective and quality action are the Convention concerning the Protection of

the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted in 1972, the Intergovernmental

Committee and the World Heritage Fund.

Cultural diversity, however, cannot be maintained solely by the preservation of the

material vestiges of the past. It requires, too, the preservation and promotion of what is now

called the "intangible heritage", which is the melting-pot of creativity and the mainspring of

living cultures.

The programme with which we are concerned today, the masterpieces of the oral and

intangible heritage programme - which, I know, is of interest to many Member States - does

not yet have strong enough instruments to enable it to fulfil its mission satisfactorily. In the

field of the intangible heritage, the only international standard-setting instrument that we have

is the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore. Adopted in

1989 by the UNESCO General Conference, it is the only international legal instrument

existing in this field. It urges Member States to "take necessary measures to safeguard

folklore against all human and natural dangers to which it is exposed". For the intangible

heritage comprises endless forms of expression conveying the fundamental values of the life

of a people and a community - oral traditions, traditional lore, the skills required for the

creation of the tangible cultures, systems of values, performing arts, languages. These various

forms of expression are the basic sources of cultural identity.

Epics - and I have in mind in particular that of the Turkish-speaking peoples attributed

to Dede Korkut, perpetuated by oral tradition up to the fifteenth century before being written

down, or the heroic epic of the Dzungar of Mongolia, or the eulogy of Sundiata, legendary

founder of the fourteenth-century Empire of Mali, sung by the griots - are vectors of the

historical, geographical, political, social, linguistic and literary references of the peoples

whose history they relate. Although many of these epics have already been noted down, the

oral and gestural skills of the storytellers and griots who keep them alive should also be

immortalized without delay.

The matter is urgent. The story of the Mossi dynasty, founded in the fifteenth century in

what is now Burkina Faso, for instance, is related by the criers. Fewer and fewer people are

now able to understand it. Before this heritage, which belongs to humanity as a whole, dies

out once and for all, it seems essential to me to record it, preserve it in writing and publish it.

Spiritual, literary and historical masterpieces such as the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey

were handed down by word of mouth long before they were set down in writing, and we have

lost forever the music of their utterance. The same is true of the Kojiki, the first book of

Japanese history, compiled and written down in 712, which is a landmark for the Japanese


Preserving and revitalizing local languages and cultural practices specific to certain

localities also helps to enhance cultural diversity. Nowadays, this appears as one of the means

likely to check the tendency towards more and more cultural uniformity as a result of

globalization and the technological revolution in the field of information and communication.

Hence, even before more elaborate international instruments are at our disposal, we

have decided here and now to launch this programme for the Proclamation of masterpieces of

the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Over and above our own conviction, we have

been led to take this step by the pressing demands of many Member States, anxious to

safeguard the treasures of their intangible heritage which is gradually disappearing. A jury

composed of nine members designated in a personal capacity will consider and select


The budget for this programme will be financed largely from extrabudgetary resources,

in accordance with the wish expressed by a number of Member States at the 157th session of

the Executive Board. Some countries have already entered into firm commitments, either for

the granting of prizes, or for the setting up of funds-in-trust for the programme. I should like,

however, to reiterate my appeal for voluntary contributions.

The clarifications you will receive today will be of a somewhat technical and practical

nature, in particular, concerning the procedure for submission of candidatures. Questions

relating rather to the substance, such as detailed selection criteria, will be noted by my

colleagues, who will answer subsequently in writing, after consulting the Jury at the

extraordinary meeting that it is to hold on 15 June.

With regard to the international assistance that UNESCO will be able to offer Member

States, I am pleased to inform you that we are ready to provide you with assistance in

preparing of a file for the submission of a candidature. The total amount of that assistance will

be US $20,000 per country, in line with that proposed by the Chairperson of the World

Heritage Committee. Mr Mounir Bouchenaki, ADG a.i. of the Culture Sector, will give you

further details in this connection.

So in May 2001 the Jury will be able to meet and for the first time proclaim

"masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity".

Furthermore, as you know, the General Conference decided, at its 30th session, that

UNESCO would "carry out a preliminary study on the advisability of regulating

internationally, through a new standard-setting instrument, the protection of traditional culture

and folklore".

We might contemplate setting up, in the medium term, a Convention for the protection

of the intangible heritage, an intergovernmental committee and a Fund, on the lines of the

World Heritage programme.

In conclusion, I should like to tell you how pleased I was to learn that this project has

been extensively and keenly debated by a great many Member States, at sessions of both the

General Conference and the Executive Board, and at various information meetings. I should

like to thank and pay tribute to all those of you who for several years have taken an interest in

this project and who are, in a way, its "sponsors". Finally, I should like to invite those who

have just joined us to share our efforts to make a success of this new project.

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