Friday, March 06, 2009

UNESCO's World Heritage Center

A world heritage site
Photo: Ian Britton via

There was a good presentation and discussion last night in our UNESCO course on the World Heritage Center and its program. We also enjoyed the participation of Ray Wanner, an expert on the World Heritage Program, as a resource person.

The program has been called UNESCO's flagship and it is perhaps the best known of UNESCO's activities. With 876 world heritage sites in 145 countries, and 186 countries as signatories to the World Heritage Convention, almost everyone has visited a world heritage site. On the other hand, most people harbor serious misconceptions about the program.

The program was created by the World Heritage Convention, which went into force in 1975. However it was created on the basis of earlier efforts.

When the Aswan Dam was built, Abu Simbel would have been flooded. This extraordinary temple, carved out of solid rock with huge statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II, was too important to lose. In the 1960's, with the leadership of UNESCO the temple was ripped out of the rock and moved to higher ground. This effort proved that UNESCO could play a catalytic role in the protection of world heritage sites.

UNESCO had been involved in the earlier creation of two important bodies for the preservation of cultural objects:
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had been created in 1948. When in the 1960's the United States proposed a World Heritage Convention which would provide for the protection of cultural and natural site of such importance as to form part of the heritage of all mankind, these organizations were in place to provide the expertise to evaluate the importance of proposed sites and the adequacy of the proposed plans for their protection.

While there are economic advantages, such as the promotion of sustainable tourism -- as well as pride of place -- in having a world heritage site, countries participate in the World Heritage Convention primarily to safeguard the common heritage of mankind.

Countries are responsible for inventorying their domestic sites worthy of world heritage designation, and proposing them for inclusion on the world heritage list. Such a proposal involves not only a defense of the importance of the site, but also a plan for its maintenance. The World Heritage Center has proposed sites and plans reviewed by the appropriate technical body, and proposals are approved, deferred or rejected by its governing body on the basis of the expert review. A list is also maintained of World Heritage Sites in Danger; one site has been removed from the World Heritage List after it had become too degraded to retain the world heritage status.

The World Heritage Center, with a secretariat of 80 people, has its own governing body, an elected subset of the member nations of UNESCO. It has a budget of some $11 million per year, of which only about $3 million comes from the assessed contributions of UNESCO member states. The budget (small in the context of the Center's responsibilities) has been controversial, with some suggestions that in view of the importance of the program UNESCO should allocate more than one percent of its regular budget to World Heritage. The remainder of the Center's budget is made up of contributions, and the Center is aggressively seeking partnerships with private and public enterprises to advance the work.

The Center secretariat not only manages the process of inscription of new world heritage sites and assists member nations in preparing proposals for inclusion, but manages the expert reviews of sites, responds to requests for expert opinion, manages a publication program on world heritage, helps to manage scientific research on the conservation and management of world heritage, provides educational materials and supports an outreach to kids.

Recognized world heritage sites are most densely located in Europe, and are sadly lacking in Africa and Oceana; there are 20 in the United States. Those in relatively affluent countries are usually well maintained; there maintenance represents a significant economic effort. The Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site in the United States, which is not part of the national park system, is perhaps an exception to this rule. Unfortunately, there are situations in which poor countries do not have the resources to effectively manage their world heritage, and sites are suffering accordingly. Were the World Heritage Center to have a more adequate budget it could provide more training and technical assistance to these countries, and indeed it might be possible to subsidize the maintenance of World Heritage sites were needed.

The most acute peril to world heritage sites probably comes in countries undergoing conflict. UNESCO's secretariat can be especially helpful in catalyzing global concern and support for protection of world heritage sites in such conditions, as was done in Bosnia.

One issue of some concern is how many World Heritage sites should be inscribed in the UNESCO list. Certainly some sites are of more transcendental importance than others. Is there a point at which adding more, less important sites will detract from the influence of the program in assuring the conservation and maintenance of the most important sites? In a few years, at the current rate of growth of the list, there will be 1,000 sites. Is that too many?

The students had some difficulty understanding the legal implications of the World Heritage Convention. Having been ratified by the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate, it has the force of law within the United States. However, there is no supra-national judiciary body that could enforce its provisions. While the convention requires signatory nations to inventory their world heritage sites and set up organizations for their maintenance, and to provide assistance where possible to other nations that request help in maintaining their own sites, given the sovereignty of the signatory nations there is no international system to police compliance. Moreover, given the lack of specificity in the terms of the Convention, it seems unlike that there would ever be an occasion to challenge the implementation by the United States in U.S. courts.

The question arises as to why the United States proposed and ratified the Convention. Since the Convention imposes duties on the nation, what do we get in return. Perhaps other conventions can help to understand the issue:
  • The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War requires each signatory nation to treat the prisoners of war that it holds in a humane way. Each signatory nation voluntarily imposes restrictions on the way it treats prisoners, but in return is assured that its citizens if prisoners of war in other signatory nations will be treated humanely. For each nation, the benefits to its own citizens are seen to more than justify any restrictions imposed on the way it treats prisoners from other nations.
  • The Climate Change Convention currently under negotiation will presumably require each signatory nation to restrict its emissions of greenhouse gases. In return it can expect other signatory nations also to restrict such emissions. No nation can prevent greenhouse warming alone, but the nations of the world in collaboration can do so.
Americans enjoy traveling to Venice, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Egypt, or the Rose Red City of Petra where they can experience a spectacular cultural experience. Americans want to know that Australia's Great Barrier Reef or Iguazu Falls in South America are maintained in pristine state. The country is willing to pledge to maintain our own sites to assure that partner nations in the Convention will also pledge to maintain theirs. Through such cooperation, more of mankind's heritage can be maintained than any nation could achieve acting alone.

1 comment:

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