Helsinki, Finland - The World Heritage Committee opened its 25th annual session in Helsinki, Finland, on Tuesday, 11 December. The meeting, hosted by the Finnish Government, was opened by the Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura; the President of Finland, Ms Tarja Halonen, and the Finnish ministers of Culture and Environment.

The opening session was attended by 280 participants representing all 21 Committee members, over 50 observers from States Parties to the World Heritage Convention, representatives from the Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committee (ICOMOS, IUCN, and ICCROM), and nearly 20 other organizations. The 21 Committee members are Argentina, Belgium, China, Colombia, Egypt, Finland, Greece, Hungary, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Oman, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Saint Lucia, South Africa, Thailand, United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe.

The Chairperson of the World Heritage Committee, Henrik Lilius, Director-General of the National Board of Antiquities of Finland, opened the meeting, listed the tasks ahead and spoke of the reforms that the Committee was undertaking.

In his speech, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura highlighted the importance of UNESCO's legal instruments in protecting the heritage of humanity and called attention to the recent adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which prohibits the pillage and destruction of ancient shipwrecks and sunken archaeological sites. As a result of the destruction earlier this year of the Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan, the General Conference of UNESCO also authorized him to prepare a Draft Declaration against the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage.

The Director-General also pointed to the widening scope of heritage protection, in part as a result of the success of the World Heritage Convention. Increasingly, intangible cultural values associated with World Heritage sites are recognized as integral components of the values for which the Committee inscribed them on the World Heritage List. The fruit of this growing interest, he said, could be seen in the preparatory work for a new convention on intangible cultural heritage, which would recognize the "ground- breaking work of the Committee in the area of World Heritage cultural landscapes and the recognition of traditional cultural and practice through World Heritage listing."

"The international community," he said, "is looking to UNESCO to rise to the challenge and add strength to all of its efforts to protect heritage. How can we meet such high expectations? ... To strengthen the legal basis for heritage protection and for heritage conservation to become a vector for socio-economic development, a spirit of co- operation and genuine partnership with all sectors of society will be required. I think that we must continue to explore new forms of partnership with the key actors of heritage conservation: local and regional governments, development co-operation agencies, universities, private foundations, the corporate sector and the growing number of NGOs. The multiplication of our efforts in the long term and the creation of a support network for World Heritage conservation through such partnerships will be vital and necessary to respond to the growing challenges facing World Heritage sites," he said.

"The year 2002, which marks the 30th Anniversary of the Convention and was recently proclaimed United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage by the United Nations General Assembly will, I hope, provide an opportunity to broaden this partnership for World Heritage protection and management," Mr. Matsuura declared.

The President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, gave a welcoming address stressing the inter-related concepts of heritage, conservation, sustainable development and sound ethical norms. "When the ethical norms in the management of cultural and natural heritage rest on a sound basis, sustainable development can be promoted in various ways." She welcomed the Director-General's focus on cultural diversity, intercultural pluralism and dialogue. The challenge facing the world," she said, "is to reach across cultures, religions and history to forge a new vision for development that rests on a shared interest in sustainability, stability and prosperity. Such a vision offers the prospect of a more human, inclusive globalisation, one that embraces cultural diversity. Preserving heritage obviously means preserving its diversity. The current international context prompts us to sharpen our focus on this dialogue. Preservation of cultural diversity is inseparable from action to strengthen intercultural dialogue. Both are at the heart of mutual understanding."

The Culture Minister, Ms. Suvi Lindén, addressed the Committee on the issues of cultural dialogue and diversity. She reminded the Committee that global co-operation between cultures was what the Convention was all about: "The protection of cultural heritage promotes dialogue between cultures. We must learn to understand and respect difference - to recognise its value as an intellectual and cultural wealth."

The Environment Minister, Ms. Satu Hassi, called attention to the importance of the Convention in preserving biodiversity. "An increasing number of species dependent on indigenous biotopes, habitats and cultural landscapes lose out in competition with other species. Efficient land use, agriculture and forestry shrink or change the habitats of these species. The World Heritage Convention," she said, "is an important instrument in our fight for the preservation of species."