Online Observations of the Sixteenth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO

Field research for canoe culture in the Federated States of Micronesia by TOBUNKEN (August 2018)

 The Sixteenth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO was held from December 13th to 18th, 2021. This session was planned to be held in Sri Lanka but was held online like the previous session due to COVID-19. While the previous session was shortened to three hours per day for deliberations, this session had 6 hours per day and the agenda was the same as usual. In the meeting, only Dr. Punchi Nilame Meegaswatte, chairperson of the session and Secretary General of Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, and members of the secretariat gathered at UNESCO’s headquarter in Paris, while other representatives from the Committee Member States, States Parties, accredited non-governmental organizations etc. participated using an online conference platform. It was broadcasted via the internet and two researchers of the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (TOBUNKEN) participated as observers.

 This time, while Japan did not submit any agenda, the Intergovernmental Committee inscribed four elements on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, 39 elements on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and 4 elements on the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices. The elements of 9 countries were inscribed for the first time on the list: the Federated States of Micronesia, Montenegro, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, Denmark, Seychelles, Timor-Leste, Iceland, and Haiti.

 Among these elements, “Carolinian wayfinding and canoe making” which was nominated by the Federated States of Micronesia and inscribed in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, is the one related to the international cooperation projects for cultural heritage conservation by TOBUNKEN. TOBUNKEN has been working on the conservation of canoe culture as intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in the Pacific Island nations: the first “Canoe Summit” was held in Guam in May 2016 and interactions took place in Japan with the traditional navigators of the Federated States of Micronesia. In fact, one of the TOBUNKEN outcomes was the inscription of “Carolinian wayfinding and canoe making” at this time. “Joumou soup” nominated by Haiti was discussed in this session and inscribed in the Representative List in accordance with Haiti’s wish and international society’s consideration to encourage the people in Haiti, who were devastated by the 2021 earthquake. The important role that ICH plays to encourage people suffering in the aftermath of disasters was highlighted in the discourse regarding the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and reaffirmed in this case.

 In this session of the Intergovernmental Committee, the outcomes of “Open-ended intergovernmental working group meeting in the framework of the global reflection on the listing mechanisms of the 2003 Convention” held in 2021, were also discussed. Though the operational procedures for the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage are described in “Operational Directives,” there are various cases whose procedures were not covered by the current “Operational Directives” as it has been more than 10 years since the Directives were first adopted. For example, there are no descriptions on how to transfer the elements in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and how to remove the elements once inscribed from the list. These cases have been individually judged in the intergovernmental committee. The working group, which was set up in 2018 to comprehensively discuss these issues, has submitted the revision of “Operational Directives” based on the outcome of the intergovernmental working group meeting held in 2021 described above. While the reform plan was decided to be submitted to General Assembly in 2022, the mandate of this working group was extended to 2022 to further streamline the discussion.

 This session progressed smoothly despite it being online owing to the mutual trust and cooperation among the state party representatives including committee member states and the UNESCO secretariat; nevertheless, I felt that it was largely because of the chairperson’s leadership. The session in Sri Lanka, the chairperson’s native country, could not happen but he took his position’s responsibility seriously and made the participants feel comfortable using his sense of humor. We were deeply impressed by his attitude. The next host country will be officially announced after monitoring the COVID-19 situation. We sincerely hope to hold the meeting in person.

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