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What is intangible cultural heritage?

Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. While these may not be tangible – they cannot be touched – they are a very important part of our cultural heritage. While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.


Why should we safeguard it?

Intangible cultural heritage is important as it gives us a sense of identity and belonging, linking our past, through the present, with our future. Intangible cultural heritage is of both social and economic importance. It aids social cohesion and helps individuals to feel part of a community and of society at large.



UNESCO, as the only specialized agency within United Nations with a specific mandate in culture, is working to create the conditions for dialogue based upon respect for shared values and encourages international cooperation. The Organization has been working for over 60 years in the field of intangible cultural heritage, which culminated with the adoption in 2003 of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Why a Convention?

The main purposes of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage by the General Conference of UNESCO in 2003 are to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, to ensure respect for it, to raise awareness about its importance and to provide for international cooperation and assistance in these fields.

The adoption of the 2003 Convention is the result of long standing efforts by UNESCO’s Member States to provide a legal, administrative and financial framework to safeguard this heritage. As a treaty, the Convention is an international agreement concluded between states in written form and governed by international law. States that ratify the Convention express their consent in being bound by its provisions. By doing so, they become States Parties to the Convention and enjoy all the rights and assume all the obligations included within the Convention.


How does the Convention work?

The Convention proposes a set of measures to be implemented at the national and international level.

At a national level, the Convention calls for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present on a State’s territory. It requests each State to identify and define such heritage with the participation of communities, groups and relevant NGOs. States shall draw up, and regularly update, inventories of the intangible cultural heritage. The Convention also proposes several safeguarding measures as well as measures aimed at raising awareness, building up capacities and promoting educational measures in the field of intangible cultural heritage.

At an international level, all States that have ratified the Convention meet in the General Assembly of the States Parties to the Convention every two years. The General Assembly gives strategic orientations for the implementation of the Convention and elects the 24 members of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which meets every year to promote the aims of the Convention and monitor its implementation.


How can intangible cultural heritage be internationally recognized under the Convention?

If selected by the Intergovernmental Committee, the intangible cultural heritage element will be inscribed on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, or on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Committee also publishes and updates a register of programmes, projects and activities that it has selected as best reflecting the objectives and principles of the Convention. These programmes, projects or activities may serve as safeguarding examples and be disseminated as good practices.

An element of the intangible cultural heritage cannot be inscribed on the Representative List and the Urgent Safeguarding List at the same time, since their purpose is different and other inscription criteria, as well as nomination procedures, apply for each of them.


Can religions or languages be recognized under the Convention?

Though religions provide communities with a sense of identity and continuity, they are not included as such in the Convention. However, the Convention refers to cultural practices and expressions inspired by religions. For instance, social practices, rituals and festive events are considered domains of the intangible cultural heritage. The Convention does not include language in itself or as a whole (grammar, vocabulary, syntax), but underscores that it is a fundamental vehicle for transmitting intangible cultural heritage.


What can States do for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage?

The State, or agencies, institutions and organizations, might work with communities to help safeguard their living heritage. Through the Convention, States are being encouraged to assist safeguarding by drawing up and updating inventories, which should include all elements of intangible cultural heritage within their territory. States are free to create their inventories in their own fashion. States may also adopt legal, technical, administrative and financial measures aimed at ensuring the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. Moreover, States should ensure recognition of and respect for the intangible cultural heritage in society, in particular through developing educational, awareness-raising and information programmes, capacity building activities for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage and supporting non-formal means of transmitting knowledge.


Are intellectual property rights dealt with by the Convention?

The Convention focuses on safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage – that is on ensuring its continuous recreation and transmission by identifying and defining the heritage itself – rather than on legally protecting specific manifestations through intellectual property rights. Applying intellectual property rights with the current legislative framework is not satisfactory when dealing with intangible cultural heritage.


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