UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL,
SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATION
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
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
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
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.