Máttur menningar - ræða á ráðstefnu UNESCO í Stokkhólmi

Statement by
Björn Bjarnason:
Minister of Education, Science, and Culture,
of the Republic of Iceland

UNESCO's Conference on Cultural Policies for Development
Stockholm, 30.3 - 2.4 1998

Allow me to applaud UNESCO's initiative holding this conference on cultural policies for development. I want to thank our Swedish hosts for creating such a good environment for our meetings and for their warm hospitality.

There is indeed every reason to welcome this conference. Considerable expectations were expressed at the General Assembly of UNESCO last fall for the outcome of our work here. It is clear that the report, Our Creative Diversity, will greatly influence the formulation of the member states' policy. We are increasingly aware that culture cannot be separated from man's other activities, in fact, we are always in one way or another engaged in cultural endeavours. Culture is the foundation of all progress, generating strength both in individuals and nations to take on new projects in a creative manner.

Referring to my nation's experience, the Icelandic society has been subject to very rapid developments during this century which is now coming to an end. Isolation and very irregular communications with other nations has been replaced by greatly increasing communications by sea and in the aiasing distancr. And now the new information technology enables all of us to literally eliminate distances in the accumulation and dissemination of information.

None of these changes have damaged the Icelandic culture. On the contrary, once again we have seen a proof that our culture flourishes when the paths to other nations are easily accessible, stimulating further cultural achievements not only through co-operation with foreign nations but also through competition.

One of the prerequisites for the flourishing of the Icelandic society is that the cultural link to the past has not been broken. We still speak the same language as we did one thousand years ago, and we can understand our literary heritage, the Icelandic Sagas, written about 800 years ago, in the language used at the time. This old literature sustains our cultural strength in the modern world.

The Icelandic writer, Halldór Laxness, who recently passed away, and who was awarded the Literary Nobel Prize here in Stockholm in 1955, frequently referred to the Icelandic literary conventions. He wrote all his books in Icelandic, a language currently spoken by only about 270,000 people and his precedence illustrates how a small nation with its own language can contribute to the world culture in a fashion noticed throughout the international community. I state this to reiterate that it does not matter where we live or what language we speak, if we have creative and cultural power that is strong enough, we can reach the whole world in an instant. In that sense our opportunities are greater than ever before.

It is of high value for the self-confidence of a small nation to have its culture and national identity respected on their own grounds and thus have the opportunity to be maintained and developed as a part of the world culture without being threatened by isolation. We have to acknowledge independent artistic creativity, a form of cultural expression based on courage of thought, richness of mind and sensitivity to the unknown.

UNESCO is the international venue where the focus is on the cultural co-operation of nations. We are indeed facing a large number of important projects in this respect. Activating young people in the work and policies of UNESCO is a highly important task. We must ensure the younger generation's participation in UNESCO's committees, and the implementation of its policies, for example, regarding the protection and creativity of the cultural heritage in their home countries. This heritage is not only something to be displayed at galleries or museums - it is the source of power stimulating future projects.

Cultural policies of individual states are highly influenced by international trends. There exists a risk that one kind of cultural influence becomes so effective that it squeezes others aside. We must fight this development, as it is our duty to focus on diversity, both in our own countries and at the international level. Culture cannot be used as a source to generate economic progress for any nation unless the same nation protects and fosters its culture on its own premises - thereby creating something new and making contributions in a broader context. We should not aim at defining the contents of creativity, we must on the other hand promote it in all fields of society. Moreover, we must respect the right of each and every one to create art and enjoy it. Creativity and ideas must be stimulated at school as early as possible. Stimulating the creative spirit of each individual at a young age is just as important as teaching him to read, write and do mathematics.

I would like to refer to the following from the report by the World Commission under discussion, and I quote: "Cultural rights are no less than other human rights, an expression and requirement of human dignity." Let us not forget this fact on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is the duty of the state to guard the right of the individual to create and enjoy art. Additionally, the state has shouldered financial responsibilities in favour of cultural creation. The development has been such, however, that the share of the state is changing, or as phrased by Nestor Gaicia Cancloni: "The great cost of the innovations required for the industrialisation of many cultural creations, high technology and the trans-nationalisation of processes of communication make it difficult for states to continue on their own to shoulder the main responsibility."

I agree that we have to reconsider the state's role but it cannot withdraw from a clearly defined responsibility in co-operation with other parties engaging in art's creation and financing. A new focus on the co-operation between states in this respect is also important. Iceland's co-operation with other nations within the framework of the Nordic Council and on the basis of the agreement of the European Economic Area is a clear confirmation of a policy that has been formulated and implemented, respecting the culture of small nations and strengthening it by co-operation with others. We must use the new opportunities and cooperation to create a space for artists as well as to protect their rights.

Mr. Chairman

I have touched upon a few key points, without however putting forward any specific proposals regarding the texts presented for approval. It is my opinion, that these texts reflect the expectations attached to this conference. We must never forget that the role of the state should be to ensure sufficient scope for the creative powers to flourish on their own premises. Any restrictions, be they local or international, and any tendencies to control the content of creativity will reduce creative diversity. We are not gathered here in Stockholm to limit our cultural opportunities - we are here to stimulate the strength of creativity to confirm the power of culture. By doing that we open up new dimensions and build a better and more peaceful future.