Rethinking ICH Safeguarding in Times of Greater Isolation and Unrest


The term “safeguarding” in the UNESCO 2003 Convention is defined as “measures aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage.” It is implied in the Convention that safeguarding is fundamentally based on social mobility and participatory interventions, which, to a great extent, productively dissolve the uneven and sometimes unclear boundaries between and among tradition bearers, relevant communities, intangible heritage assets, cultural practitioners, government and non-government institutions, schools, experts, and the public. As UNESCO reports, heritage performances and practices listed on the UNESCO Lists are disturbed by the alarming widespread of coronavirus all over the world. And if we are to consider those cultural practices not officially recognized by UNESCO though perceived as included in national heritage register of different societies, we are absolutely talking about a huge number of heritage-related activities on temporary halt. In Southeast Asian countries, for example, such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, partial and total lockdown are imposed, paralyzing any intention to hold rituals and festivities let alone go out for work. Considering this alone, the COVID-19 global pandemic strongly challenges us to re-think of ICH safeguarding as primarily a global effort to empower people, especially if we are to concede that the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of institutions and policies alike operating with or through “normal” systems.

This series of essays aims to explore the adjustments rendered by stakeholders in the ICH field as a short-term coping mechanism, as well as long-term changes deemed necessary as we go forward. The importance of rethinking how we do intangible heritage work is more pronounced than ever. Seeing how many communities are covered by relevant cultural policies but remain badly affected by the pandemic, does it signal us to think that perhaps we should begin looking at ICH safeguarding as not merely heritage management or implementation of best strategies to promote or protect intangible heritage, but more importantly allocating resources as proposed by William Logan (2012: 241) for communities, groups, and individuals, who are essentially at the social margins? My contention is ICH safeguarding in current practice tends to displace the human rights dimension of heritage, thus the capital to protect cultural practices remains outside relevant communities or groups. Therefore, this series will also explore the need for human rights-based approaches to ICH safeguarding, substantiated by thoughts of different stakeholders in the ICH field.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the most important international instrument concerning the protection of ICH adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in October 2003 in Paris, has a profound human rights dimension. In fact, the following international human rights instruments were foundational in assigning the UNESCO 2003 Convention its particular humanitarian direction: The Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966. The human rights dimension in cultural heritage is reinforced not only by the aforementioned international human rights instruments, but also by other international and regional instruments such as the UNESCO Declaration on the Principles of International Cultural Cooperation of 1966 (particularly on the right to preserve and develop culture), the Algiers Declaration of 1976 (particularly on the right to respect for cultural identity), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights of 1981 (particularly on the right of equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind) (Blake 2011: 223). In other words, the formation of the intimate relationship between cultural heritage and human rights is not simply implied by a single international instrument, but one that is realised through regional and international contemplative political processes expressed in legal writing across different contexts and time.

How does seeing the human rights dimension of intangible heritage practice make a difference in a time of greater isolation and unrest? For policy makers and institutions with the capacity to deploy interventions, it might be more meaningful to develop initiatives and resources that equip communities, groups, and individuals beyond activity timeframes toward self-determination and agency. Doing so requires a continuous meditation on how the idea of “the past” is understood in the way we think of heritage.