Conserving Heritage: Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights

UN Chronicle, June 1993 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Conserving Heritage: Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights


For centuries, cultural artifacts have been stolen from indigenous people, sold and displayed in violation of their beliefs. Similarly, medicinal plants developed over thousands of years by traditional healers have reaped big earnings in the pharmaceutical market--with very small profit shared with the indigenous originators. Native legend song, lore and lahguage--few are unscathed by the long history of injustice towards the intellectual and cultural property rights of indigenous people.

One challenge in dealing with these rights is in balancing two distinct ideas as to how they should be handled. One view, subscribed to by many indigenous peoples, holds that they themselves must protect their own traditions, ideas, innovations and objects, and that only self-protection will guarantee preservation of their property and adequate compensation for its use.

Opposing this perspective is the claim of some States that, because many indigenous knowledge bases and cultural objects have universal value, they are part of the world's common heritage. Under this view, these objects and ideas should be accessible to all in society for legitimate scientific and educational purposes. it is hoped that the international Year for the World's indigenous People will increase the commitment of the international community to help indigenous people realize their rights in both areas.

Cultural property

Cultural property rights focus on enabling indigenous peoples to preserve and control the use of their relics, archaeological sites, textiles, skeletal remains, rituals, songs, legends, and other materials.

The term "cultural property" was formally coined by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict--known as the Hague Convention--which was elaborated in 1954. The first in-depth definition was described in the landmark 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The term is defined as "property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science". While the document focused on the repatriation of cultural property to its place of origin, the scope of cultural property was broadened to include sites of outstanding universal value with the adoption of the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

These international Conventions have provided some redress for the exploited cultural heritage of indigenous people. The 1970 Convention, for example, gave the support of international law to the claims of the Aymara community in Cormoa, Bolivia, which in 1988 began pursuing the repatriation of sacred weavings that disappeared in 1978 during visits by North American ethnic art and antiquities dealers.

In Canada as well, the Kwakiotl Indians were able to invoke the Convention to secure the return of artifacts taken when police broke up a "Potlatch" ceremony in 1922. This ancient rite, held to celebrate important events such as initiations, deaths or the investiture of chiefs and marked by feasting, spirit-dancing and gift-giving, was banned in Canada from 1884 until 1951.

However, the international Conventions do not reflect all the concerns of indigenous people. For instance, they make no reference to skeletal remains, which are frequently displayed in museums in a manner perceived by native cultures as undignified and sacrilegious.

To augment the treaties, the UN General Assembly has formulated resolutions to support cultural property rights, including a 1991 appeal to States to conclude bilateral agreements for the return of cultural property to its country of origin.

Finalization of the draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples will further expand the protection of historical sites and structures, artifacts, designs, ceremonies and works of art.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Conserving Heritage: Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?