Posted on December 13, 2011
The UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention of 2003 is nearly 10 years old, and its relative maturity as an international instrument was evident at 6.COM, the annual meeting of its Intergovernmental Committee in Bali: for the first time, a large proportion of the nominations to its lists were rejected or referred back to the States Parties. Also, NGOs and researchers began to organize themselves to engage with the Convention's organs and promote its implementation.

The more rigorous application of the criteria in the assessment of nominations this year had a big impact on the number of inscriptions on the two lists of the Convention: the Urgent Safeguarding List (USL) and the Representative List (RL). For the first time, the Committee could choose to refer nominations to the RL back to States Parties for additional information instead of simply proposing their rejection or inscription. An expedited re-assessment system was set up so that the Committee could consider referred nominations for the USL more quickly than usual following resubmission.

About half of the 23 nominations to the Urgent Safeguarding List were not inscribed: some of these files were rejected, some were referred for additional information, and some files were withdrawn by submitting states. In a few cases, the Committee took into account additional information or clarification provided by submitting states in the session for USL nominations, but this was not permitted to affect the inscription decision in discussions about the RL nominations. Only about two fifths of the RL nominations, were inscribed. This was disappointing for submitting states but referral or rejection of poor nominations, proposals and requests will improve the quality of future nominations and requests, and enhance the credibility of the Convention as a whole.

Unlike the World Heritage Committee, which is guided by the assessments done by ICOMOS and IUCN, the Intangible Heritage Convention's Intergovernmental Committee is currently assisted in making its inscription decisions by the assessments of two different bodies: the Subsidiary Body and the Consultative Body. The Subsidiary Body, which assesses the RL nominations, consists of six representatives from States Parties who are members of the Committee. The Consultative Body, which assesses the USL nominations, international assistance requests and proposals of best practices, consists of six individual experts and six representatives of NGOs accredited under the Convention. In both bodies the six (UNESCO) regions of the world are equally represented. At the Bali meeting, the Committee altered a number of the recommendations of both bodies, but was fairly consistent in its decisions to make changes.

The Committee did not recommend changing the criteria for nominations to the Lists of the Convention in Bali. In rejecting or referring some of the nominations they underlined the importance of meeting existing criteria in the Operational Directives (paras 1-2). In my view, this is a positive position to take because poor identification of ICH elements, and associated communities (see criterion 1), as well as poor safeguarding strategies (see criterion 3), will not lead to appropriate safeguarding of elements. This is evident from the experience of the World Heritage Convention. Nominations to the World Heritage List were not at first required to include conservation management plans and this led to considerable problems in managing the properties, especially when they were faced with the additional pressures associated with being on the World Heritage List.

Non-governmental organizations and experts working in the field had several meetings during the session. A preliminary NGO Forum had been set up at 5.COM, the previous Committee meeting in Nairobi, to facilitate networking and interfacing with the Committee and the Secretariat of the Convention. This Forum set up an online platform for information exchange during 6.COM. A meeting of researchers was also held at 6.COM to discuss a proposed meeting of researchers before the General Assembly of the Convention in June every second year. Although these initiatives are still rather ad hoc, they may be an important start in the development of organisational structures supporting the involvement of NGOs, researchers and civil society in the implementation of the Convention.

Unfortunately, although African countries make up 23 % of the States Parties to the Convention, the initial hope that the Convention could be used to also showcase African heritage at the international level has not been realised. In Bali, only two African elements were inscribed: the Rite of the Koredugaw (Mali) and the Cultural practices linked to the balafon of the Senufo communities (Mali and Burkina Faso). This brings the total number of African inscriptions on the lists of the Convention to 21, only about 8% of the total inscriptions.

More effort could be made by States Parties, communities and NGOs to develop nominations from a variety of African countries. At the same time, however, many African countries are making great progress with arguably more important aspects of the implementation of the Convention, viz. inventorying and awareness raising at the national level. Recent inventorying projects in Uganda, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho have for example fostered local interest in African intangible heritage. Some African countries have developed, or are developing, ICH policies (e.g. South Africa), and many have adapted their intellectual property regimes to include ICH (e.g. Kenya).

Harriet Deacon attended the Intangible Heritage Convention's Intergovernmental Committee meeting in November 2011 as a representative of the Archival Platform. She has been working on intangible heritage in South Africa for some years and was involved in the development of an intangible heritage policy at national level in 2009. More recently, she has been working from the UK with Rieks Smeets on the development of UNESCO training materials on the implementation of the Convention (thanks are also due to Rieks for his comments on this report). She writes in her personal capacity.