UNESCO'S International Agreements

When countries agree to common rules that extend beyond their cultural differences and traditions, they can draw up an “international instrument”. UNESCO offers leadership in setting these international norms and standards. There are three principal instruments:

  • an agreement or convention, which is legally binding,
  • a recommendation
  • a declaration.

UNESCO participates in these efforts serving as a central forum for articulating the ethical, normative and intellectual issues of our time, working towards universal agreements on these issues, setting targets and mobilizing international opinion.

On this page you will find each instrument listed by type and by UNESCO sector of activity.


International Conventions may be adopted either by the General Conference of UNESCO or by international conferences of member states convened by UNESCO. Conventions must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote. Once passed, UNESCO opens them to signature by Member States.

Like treaties, conventions must be ratified by signatory states before they go into effect. The process of ratification in each member state may take several years. In a federal state such as Canada, a lengthy process of consultation and consensus building is sometimes necessary. Some examples of conventions adopted by the General Conference include:


Recommendations formulate principles and norms for the international regulation of procedure and practice related to any particular issue. They may be adopted by a simple majority of UNESCO’s General Conference. Member states are invited to take account of them in their national legislation or to give them effect by any other appropriate means. Recommendations do not require either signature or ratification by member states. Two examples are:

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Adopted by the General Conference, Declarations are statements articulating seminal principles and ideas. One recent example is UNESCO’s Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage (October 17, 2003), which reflects UNESCO’s serious concern about the growing number of acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage, Another example, the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (October 16, 2003) was drafted to ensure the respect of human dignity and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the collection, processing, use and storage of human genetic data.

Another landmark declaration issued on November 2, 2002 was the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity . The Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage (October 15, 2003) recognizes the fact that resources of information and creative expression are increasingly produced, distributed, accessed and maintained in digital form. It underscores the fact that this new legacy is at risk of being lost and that its preservation for the benefit of present and future generations is an urgent issue of worldwide concern.

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Conventions, Recommendations, and Declarations are organizing instruments. Once they are drawn up, they become tools to continue work on an issue. There are important follow-up tasks, especially monitoring the implementation of conventions, recommendations, and declarations in the policies, programs, and legislation of governments.

In some cases, a convention includes the obligation to create a mechanism in each country – such as an organization, or the legal ability to implement its provisions. A good example is the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials . Established by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) , the Canadian Information Centre was created to meet Canada’s obligations under the Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas, and Degrees Concerning Higher Education. Normally, such an obligation falls to the national government, but it may be delegated to other bodies. In Canada for example, where education is a provincial responsibility, the CMEC is responsible for follow-up and reporting on Canada’s performance in this sector.

All of UNESCO’s normative instruments include measures to monitor their implementation. Many require progress reports from governments. For example, the CMEC has reported twice on behalf of Canada on our country’s performance in implementing the Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (November 19, 1974). UNESCO produces syntheses of the national reports that allow comparisons to be made with other countries.

More information on UNESCO’s normative instruments can be found on the Legal Instruments Section of the UNESCO web site .

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