Since Palestine was admitted to UNESCO on 31 October, there have been several misleading media reports about the status of Palestinian cultural heritage sites. Here is how UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee works and what it has done with respect to cultural sites in Palestine.
The World Heritage Committee inscribes sites it considers to be of “outstanding universal value.” Nominations must include legal and management provisions to ensure they are properly conserved. The Committee is an intergovernmental body with a membership of 21 State Parties elected by an assembly of all States Parties to the World Heritage Convention. There are no quotas for regional groups, but it is established practice to ensure an equitable representation of different regions and cultures.
The UNESCO office in Ramallah has been implementing projects to preserve cultural heritage in the Palestinian territories since it was established in early 1998. In 2002, the World Heritage Committee recognized the potential outstanding universal value of the Palestinian heritage and requested the UNESCO Secretariat to help the Palestinian Authority protect it. Since then, the World Heritage Committee has funded the preparation of an inventory of cultural and natural heritage sites in Palestine. It has also funded specific conservation projects for sites included in the inventory and a range of capacity-building activities. The inventory is not official since Palestine was not a signatory to the World Heritage Convention when it was prepared.
Now that it has signed and accepted UNESCO’s Constitution, Palestine can ratify UNESCO Conventions, including the World Heritage Convention. Membership in the Convention becomes active three months after ratification.
Once it becomes a State Party to the World Heritage Convention, Palestine will be able to submit nominations of sites for inscription on the World Heritage List.
All States Parties must present the World Heritage Committee with a Tentative List of sites they intend to nominate one year before nominations are submitted.
Decisions on inscription are made by the World Heritage Committee, upon the recommendation of the International Council on Monuments and Sites or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the two advisory bodies for cultural heritage and natural heritage respectively. Nominations must be submitted by State Parties before 1 February every year if they are to be examined during the Committee session the following calendar year.
Thus, Palestine’s sites could not normally be considered for inscription by the World Heritage Committee before 2014, unless it is determined that a nomination needs to be processed on an emergency basis. Emergency processing can occur when a site unquestionably meets the criteria for inscription on the World Heritage List and has suffered damage or faces serious and specific dangers from natural events or human activities. It is then considered at the next annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee.