Initiative B@bel

UNESCO, mandated by its Constitution to "free exchange of ideas and knowledge", fully subscribes to this Statement and endeavours to reaffirm the concept of universal access to information in the emerging information society. In addition, UNESCO’s Constitution clearly spells out this mission in Article I(2c): the Organization will "maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge … by initiating methods of international cooperation calculated to give the people of all countries access to the printed and published materials produced by any of them".

Thus, the promotion of access to information in the public domain in a balanced use of languages was approved by the General Conference 3 at its 29th session as a basic element of this strategy and was included in its programme planning for the 1998-1999 biennium.4

It was further emphasized in 29 C/Resolution 38 (para. 2.B(b)) inviting the Director-General to "lend fresh impetus … to linguistic diversity at all levels of education and to multilingualism in educational curricula and to assist in the further development of educational services in Member States in indigenous and minority languages".

Hence, UNESCO’s approach is to protect the interest of the majority by promoting the universal multilingual diffusion of the global public domain of knowledge and the global information commons through networks such as the Internet. Not only is this strategic approach respecting the spirit of the Constitution and the General Conference resolutions but it also confirms that UNESCO must take a leading initiative in it.

Public domain information is a global public good; without active public support there will be under-provision of this good. With this in mind, UNESCO's main goal consists in redefining universal access to information in all languages in cyberspace by encouraging (1) the development of tools (translation mechanisms; terminology; protocols; etc.) that will facilitate multilingual communication in cyberspace (2) the promotion of fair allocation of public resources to public information providers; and (3) the promotion of access to multilingual public domain information and knowledge.

The programme "Initiative B@bel" proposes to do this by implementing concrete activities at national and international levels, with the objective to develop multilingualism on the information networks and to encourage full partnership between governments, industry and civil society. The programme could be oriented in several directions:

  • creation of the infrastructure: establishment of UNESCO Chairs, associating universities with industry, for strengthening research in and development of multilingual search engines, multilingual gateways, virtual libraries and archives, etc.;
  • development of multilingual tools: adapting multilingual indexing of websites, thesauri, standards, lexicons and terminology existing in the European Union, UNESCO, ISO, UNU, Union Latine, Infoterm, etc., to other languages including local ones;
  • Strengthen interoperability: supporting the development of automatic translation tools, including the production of translation free software, the application of translation schools work to the webpages, the on-line development of multilingual encyclopedia, upgrading of routers, etc.;
  • formulation of national and international policies and regulations: encouraging the use of many languages on the information networks, the on-line teaching of foreign languages in the education systems, the development of multilingual websites (with a web prize), etc.

This approach can be implemented, however, only with a strong political consensus and cooperation from the Member States. Global public goods provide a central rationale for international collective action in the collective interest of all.

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