Today marks the 47th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention. This Convention protects the world’s most outstanding places, belonging to us all.
Where it all began
The idea of creating an international movement for protecting heritage emerged after World War I. The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage developed from the merging of two separate movements: the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites, and the other dealing with the conservation of nature.
The event that aroused particular international concern was the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would have flooded the valley containing the Abu Simbel temples, a treasure of ancient Egyptian civilization. In 1959, after an appeal from the governments of Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO launched an international safeguarding campaign. Archaeological research in the areas to be flooded was accelerated. Above all, the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were dismantled, moved to dry ground and reassembled.
The campaign cost about US$80 million, half of which was donated by some 50 countries, showing the importance of solidarity and nations' shared responsibility in conserving outstanding cultural sites. Its success led to other safeguarding campaigns, such as saving the Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro (Pakistan), and restoring the Borobodur Temple Compounds (Indonesia).
Consequently, UNESCO initiated, with the help of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the preparation of a draft convention on the protection of cultural heritage.
World Heritage Convention
The most significant feature of the 1972 World Heritage Convention is that it links together in a single document the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties. The Convention recognizes the way in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two. The Convention defines the kind of natural or cultural sites which can be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List.
The Convention sets out the duties of States Parties in identifying potential sites and their role in protecting and preserving them. By signing the Convention, each country pledges to conserve not only the World Heritage sites situated on its territory, but also to protect its national heritage. The States Parties are encouraged to integrate the protection of the cultural and natural heritage into regional planning programmes, set up staff and services at their sites, undertake scientific and technical conservation research and adopt measures which give this heritage a function in the day-to-day life of the community.
World Heritage sites have benefitted and improved their state of conservation through protection by the Convention. For example, Angkor (Cambodia), has completed more than 60 projects thanks to contributions from more than 20 countries.
Another example is Comoé National Park (Côte d’Ivoire), one of the largest protected areas in West Africa, inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003, following the outbreak of civil conflict in the country. After concerted and coordinated actions of the State Party and its strategic, technical and financial partners, it was finally removed from this List at the 41st session of the Committee in Krakow, Poland in 2017.
Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, was on the List of World Heritage in Danger for ten years before it was finally removed at the 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee in Manama, Bahrain in July 2018. This was made possible by a strong and collaborative effort involving government, civil society and the scientific community, as well as the World Heritage Centre, Advisory Bodies and the Committee with its decision-making power.
Learn more about World Heritage success stories in the World Heritage Review: https://whc.unesco.org/en/review/90/
Still, the Convention faces many changes. Increasing threats to World Heritage sites through extreme weather events and climate change, such as floods at Venice and its Lagoon (Italy) affect people and their heritage.
Overtourism is another potential threat to our outstanding sites. With over 1.4 billion people travelling internationally each year (a number which is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030), and cultural tourism one of the largest and fastest-growing global tourism markets, it has become more important than ever that we work together to safeguard World Heritage through sustainable tourism.
World Heritage sites are irreplaceable assets of humanity and belong to us all, but in order for us to ensure their protection, we must continue to apply the Convention for future generations to come.