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Address by
Henrikas Yushkiavitshus
Assistant Director-General for
Communication, Information and Informatics
UNESCO

on the occasion of the
Opening Ceremony of the
XXXIIIrd International Conference
of the Round Table on Archives (CITRA)

Stockholm, Sweden
9 September 1998

Honorable Minister,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 

It is my great pleasure to be with you this morning and to bring you the best wishes of the Director-General of UNESCO for the success of this year's CITRA Conference. This is an outstanding event, not only because it takes place as ICA turns fifty years old something we will celebrate tomorrow - but also because of its venue in Stockholm, the cultural capital of Europe.

Sweden is generously hosting your Conference and so we once again enjoy your splendid hospitality. We already had a taste of it in spring this year when the Swedish Government and UNESCO organized the Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development. As the Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, said on that occasion: "Sweden demonstrates an authentic attachment to international co-operation and its awareness of the central role which culture plays in the development of society".

The important role of archives in cultural development was underlined in the report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, whose work was the basis for the spring conference here in Stockholm. Archives, as Jean-Pierre Wallot states in the report, "provide vital landmarks, evidence of how human history was made. They are therefore a necessary element of democratic governance and accountability; it is important that governments provide easy access to them".

In choosing the technological challenges of access to archival information as this year's theme, the CITRA Conference makes an important contribution to the all important discussion of technique and content in the Information Society. The issue has a strong ethical dimension, which is both adequate and timely.

The Information Society requires UNESCO and its partners to play a unique role in ensuring the "free exchange of ideas and knowledge" as the Organization is mandated to do by its Constitution. One of our goals therefore is to redefine the meaning of universal access to information and to see how the new definition affects other aspects of the Information Society. Another area of great concern for UNESCO is "content" in the Information Society. Both these issues are linked to others such as freedom of expression, freedom of access to information, democracy, cultural identity and diversity and the empowerment of developing economies, to name a few.

The principal tenet of believers in the Information Revolution and the Information Society is that information highways will eventually provide universal access to services that have so far been available to only a few, open up vast opportunities for accessing and sharing information and thereby empower men and women in every aspects of their lives. This, in turn, will lead to increased democratic participation in all societies and greater communication, understanding and tolerance among people world-wide.

 

Utopia within our grasp? Perhaps not. There is still very real danger that the "Information Revolution" will simply increase the gap between developing and developed countries and generate new gaps between those who have access to information and those who do not, between the rich and poor whether they be in the industrialized or the developing countries. High technology may well, once again, outrun social justice.

The economic logic reflected in the price of the Internet backbone applies to both developing and developed countries. In a number of developing countries, the rigid telecommunications monopoly enjoyed by a government owned operator with low business efficiency is one of the major obstacles to citizens using the Internet for economic development. The cultural concentration of the international information flow may therefore be somewhat diluted if policies to encourage market competition in the national telecommunications sector are introduced.

Any cultural or linguistic dominance observed in electronic media is therefore the result of the collective economic activities of those who are providing telecommunication services at lowest cost. When we complain in Europe about the high level concentration of information from the USA via the Internet, we should really be complaining about the telecom costs in Europe. At present it is much cheaper to communicate across the Atlantic than within EU. The prices on the backbone intra European network are five times higher than those for the same distances in the US. This is how economic logic is shaping the flow of information. However it is only one of the aspects of the challenges to the free and balanced access to information and I am certain that you will discuss many others during the coming days.

We need to think carefully about talk of cultural domination imposed by this or that country, because the time has come to see where the real roots of cultural dominance lie. It is not only in the telecommunication economies. The roots are widespread. An air ticket from Paris to Stockholm costs three times more than one from Paris to New York.

The new technologies are not however simply quantitative and in the field of archives they can provide access which is qualitatively different. One example of this are the embryons of virtual archives which already exist in Cyberspace.

Technology as such is important only if you do not have it. The telephone is a vital piece of technology if you do not have one. One you have a telephone, what matters above all is what you say into it.

The Information Society is raising more and more new questions concerning privacy and public access to archives with the result that ethics are very rapidly are becoming a central issue. UNESCO's mission is an ethical one. We are an Organization for international intellectual co-operation and as such acutely aware of the importance of cultural diversity, reciprocity and above all inter-cultural dialogue. UNESCO reaffirms each day that every culture is a collective memory, a shared past and present, which provides the human identity with innate dignity. We know that many many perhaps numberless memories lie in archives all over the world.

As you may imagine, from what I have said, I sincerely wish your meeting best success.    

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