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The World Heritage Convention: 30 Years Old and Going Strong

The World Heritage Convention celebrated its 30th anniversary on 16 November 2002. Uniting 175 governments in the collective protection of our shared heritage, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage is the most successful international conservation instrument in existence. Today, the World Heritage emblem graces 730 sites around the globe, which have been inscribed on the World Heritage List for their "outstanding universal value".
Not only is the Convention a vital instrument for concrete action in preserving threatened sites and endangered ecosystems, it also enshrines what US environmentalist Russell Train, founding director of the World Wildlife Fund, called “the simple and yet revolutionary concept that throughout the world there exist natural and cultural areas of such unique value that they truly are part of the heritage, not only of individual nations, but of all mankind.” Writing in the Convention’s inaugural year, Train added: “It is an idea which gives eloquent expression through cooperative international action to the truth that the Earth is indeed man’s home and belongs to us all.”
Today, says UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura, "The World Heritage Convention is a noble, vital force in the world, fostering peaceful coexistence and honouring our past in equal measure with our future."


The idea of creating an international movement for protecting the shared heritage of the world emerged after World War I in the work of the League of Nations. An international conference held in Athens in 1931 resulted in the first major initiative to stimulate international debate and cooperation on conservation issues, the Athens Charter. The next milestone came after World War II, with a treaty aimed at preventing the destruction of heritage in times of war. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, also known as the Hague Convention, was adopted in May 1954. To date, 102 Member States have undertaken to renounce the destruction, pillage or dangerous use of cultural heritage and to prevent such dangers to architectural and archaeological sites, collections and museums. The treaty has given rise to numerous actions by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which has either wielded its moral authority or provided logistical and expert assistance in reducing or repairing damage caused by conflicts.

Abu Simbel Another defining moment occurred in 1960 when UNESCO launched an international campaign, in response to an appeal by Egypt and Sudan, to save Abu Simbel and the other Nubian temples, which were to be flooded by the River Nile with the construction of the Aswan High Dam. André Malraux, France’s Culture Minister at the time, said that through the campaign “the first world civilisation publicly proclaims the world’s art as its indivisible heritage.” Some 50 countries made financial contributions making up half the $80 million dollar cost of the campaign to move the monuments out of harm’s way.
The World Heritage Convention drew its inspiration from the international synergy of this great project as well as subsequent UNESCO campaigns during the 1960s to conserve treasures such as the city of Venice, Italy, after the great flood of 1966, the threatened Bronze Age city of Moenjodaro, in Pakistan, and the Buddhist temple compounds of Borobodur, Indonesia. In 1965 a drive for a convention to protect both cultural and natural heritage was spearheaded by Russell Train and Joseph Fisher in the United States of America, with a White House Conference calling for a World Heritage Trust to stimulate international cooperation to protect “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry”. City of Venice
Michel Batisse, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Science at the time, has described as “profoundly innovative” the idea of a single legal text protecting both cultural and natural heritage. “It is precisely because they [had] been kept separate that both culture and nature are today in serious danger,” he wrote. In 1968, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) developed similar proposals. Finally, following a United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972 and the work of expert groups involving IUCN, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and UNESCO, all the proposals came together as the World Heritage Convention, which was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in Paris on 16 November 1972.
The Convention, which formally took effect upon ratification by the first 20 States Parties in 1975, established a World Heritage Fund to finance technical cooperation to assist in the protection, restoration or management of properties on the World Heritage List at the request of the States Parties concerned. The Fund today receives three to four million dollars a year in dues as well as voluntary contributions. The Convention also established a List of World Heritage in Danger for properties needing special international attention and priority assistance.
In 1978, the World Heritage Committee, the main body in charge of implementing the Convention, developed selection criteria for the inscription of properties on the World Heritage List. The Committee also set up a system for providing international assistance from the World Heritage Fund, and drew up Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. These Guidelines set out principles of monitoring and reporting for properties inscribed on the World Heritage List and describe the criteria and procedures for putting threatened properties on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park With all the parameters in place, the World Heritage List began taking shape the same year, and the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador became the first of 12 sites to be inscribed, meeting all four criteria for a natural site. Also in 1978 the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland became the first industrial heritage site to be included on the List. The following year saw the first use of the designation of World Heritage in Danger, after a major earthquake struck Montenegro, in Yugoslavia. More than two-thirds of the structures of Kotor, a medieval town nestled in a natural harbour on the Adriatic coast, were destroyed or heavily damaged. The site was placed simultaneously on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, and has since been largely conserved, mostly with UNESCO's help.
The first site to be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger, in 1988, was Senegal’s Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a fragile wetlands area threatened by invasive plants, after sluices were built to allow better regulation of water. The List of World Heritage in Danger currently includes 33 sites, mostly in Africa.
The World Heritage Convention entered its third decade with the establishment of the World Heritage Centre at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in January 1992. The Centre oversees the day-to-day management of the Convention, organising the annual meetings of the World Heritage Committee and advising States Parties preparing site nominations, in consultation with ICOMOS, the IUCN and a third advisory body, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).
Senegal’s Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary

The Centre manages the World Heritage Fund, organising international assistance upon request, and coordinates both the reporting on the condition of sites and the emergency action undertaken when a site is threatened. Crucially, the Centre is responsible for raising awareness of the World Heritage concept and the need to preserve World Heritage sites around the world.

Galápagos Islands The World Heritage Convention passed another new milestone in 1993 when New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, whose mountains have cultural and religious significance for the Maori people and symbolise their spiritual links with the environment, was designated a cultural landscape. The new designation for areas that reflect the reciprocal harmony and influence reigning between people and the natural world was a “stroke of genius,” says Christina Cameron, Director General of Canada’s National Historic Sites and Parks and former Chair of the World Heritage Committee. Today, in its 30th anniversary year, the World Heritage List boasts 28 outstanding cultural landscapes.

From Strength to Strength: The Convention at Work

The Convention’s first 30 years have seen a number of remarkable successes, through international campaigns raising more than 1.5 billion dollars to date, while the World Heritage has also faced severe tests from the ravages of man and nature. Development in Egypt, which had threatened the Nubian monuments in the 1960s, returned to world headlines in 1995 when a highway project near Cairo endangered the archaeological site surrounding the Giza Pyramids. Negotiations with the Egyptian government resulted in a satisfactory conservation outcome with an alternative route being found for the road. Another event, however, found the world community powerless to intervene, when in 2001 the hardline Islamist Taliban regime then in control in Afghanistan demolished the giant Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley. This year, the war-devastated country saw its first site inscribed on the World Heritage List, the Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam. UNESCO Director General Koïchiro Matsuura said: “This recognition, while it cannot heal the wound opened by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, is nevertheless a symbolic step that should be hailed.”
Notable accomplishments in situations of armed conflict include a multi-million dollar project launched in 1999 in five national parks in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to endangered species including the mountain gorilla, the northern white rhino and the okapi. All five sites are on the List of World Heritage in Danger, and are threatened by the combined effects of refugee influxes, rebel activities, banditry and poaching. The project supports more than 1,000 local personnel and seeks to integrate indigenous community needs with site protection.
Another success, in 1999, involved a decision not to build a massive commercial salt factory in Laguna San Ignacio, a World Heritage site at El Vizcaino Bay on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. It is the last pristine birthing lagoon for the Pacific gray whale as well as home to many endangered species of flora and fauna. The plan to build a saltworks inside the sanctuary was considered an unacceptable risk to the whales and the overall marine ecology, and prompted international protests. In March 2000, the Mexican government refused permission for the saltworks in response to a plea by the World Heritage Committee.

On Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands the delicate biological balance was threatened in the 1990s by excessive fishing and by the introduction of alien species of plants and animals. Inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger was seriously considered, but the government took effective steps to remedy the situation. In 1998 Ecuador enacted a "Special Galapagos Law" which greatly strengthens conservation in the islands and surrounding waters.
But most of the work of the Convention, by the very nature of conservation and preservation, as well as partnership-building and diplomacy, is painstaking, long-range and not especially glamorous. Funds for preparatory assistance, technical cooperation, emergency assistance, training and promotional and educational assistance are allocated by the World Heritage Committee, with priority given to assisting threatened sites. Examples of international financial support include:

- help in identifying sites for potential inscription on the World Heritage List;
- technical assistance in safeguarding World Heritage sites;
- training in skills such as wetland management, forestry, environmental education, agroforestry and management of protected areas in arid regions; or, for cultural sites, architectural conservation, urban planning in historic cities, stone and wood conservation, mosaic and mural painting restoration; and
- assistance in preparing periodic reports on the condition of World Heritage sites, used as a basis for specific training and other programmes aimed at resolving recurrent conservation problems.

Today, the World Heritage ideal is so well understood that sites on the List are a magnet for international cooperation. Former World Heritage Committee member Rob Milne says: “In the past five years, more international money has flowed into that type of project than in the past 75 years, primarily because they are World Heritage sites.”


Getting the Message Out

Since the mid-1980s, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre has sought to get the World Heritage message out as broadly as possible in as many media and languages as possible, targeting the general public, especially young people. In 1985, it launched a series of radio programmes that are available free to broadcasting organisations in French and in English. An inaugural six-part series entitled “Why Preserve the Past-” was followed by “Venice: The Vanishing Waterland” and two programmes on Dubrovnik in the wake of the 1991-95 war in Croatia.
In 1996, the World Heritage Review, a bi-monthly colour magazine, was launched with editions in English, French and Spanish. A World Heritage Newsletter is also published every two months. Perhaps the most successful outreach tool of the World Heritage Centre is its web site, http://whc.unesco.org, which received a record 960,000 “page views” in September 2002. The Young People's Participation in World Heritage Preservation and Promotion, a project launched in 100 countries in 1994, developed new educational approaches to informing young people and motivating them to become involved in the protection and promotion of heritage. Frequent regional and international World Heritage Youth Fora create links between schools, city governments and conservation experts and serve as a catalyst for involving secondary school students and local authorities in site conservation efforts.
A resource kit for teachers entitled World Heritage in Young Hands has been published in several national and local languages and is being tested in 120 countries so that it can be adapted to national needs. In addition, the World Heritage Centre produced two 14-minute documentary films in 1999: "World Heritage: Ours to Cherish, Ours to Protect" on the World Heritage conservation process and "World Heritage in Young Hands" on UNESCO’s World Heritage project for young people.
With encouragement from UNESCO, television and video producers across the world have created informative and educational films on World Heritage sites and conservation. The German TV channel Südwestrundfunk has completed nearly 200 episodes of a documentary series entitled "Treasures of the World" which is broadcast in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Another weekly television special entitled "The World Heritage" is broadcast in Japan, and an international television and Internet information campaign was developed in 1999 with the History Channel®.

Reaching Out, Joining Hands

The World Heritage Convention calls for “the establishment of a system of international cooperation and assistance designed to support States Parties to the Convention in their efforts to conserve and identify heritage”. Partnerships have proliferated and gained in sophistication over the years, involving governments, agencies and scientific organizations.
Partnerships take diverse forms. The youth outreach project mentioned earlier is one of the most important and wide-ranging partnerships, bringing together the Netherlands Funds in Trust, the Norwegian development agency and the French Rhône-Poulenc Foundation with continuing support from the World Heritage Fund and UNESCO. A three million dollar project involving six World Heritage sites is a joint endeavour by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Heritage Centre, and the non-profit RARE Center for Tropical Conservation with a third of its financing coming from the cosmetics firm Aveda and the UN Foundation. The project will create a model for using tourism to promote the protection of important habitats as well as empowering local communities to benefit from the growing tourism industry.
The World Heritage Committee, meeting in Budapest in June 2002, endorsed the World Heritage Partners Initiative to foster further relationships between the World Heritage Centre and its wide array of partners, to create a framework through which a wide range of governmental and non-governmental, private sector and civil society institutions and individuals can contribute financial and technical resources to the conservation of World Heritage sites around the world.

The Road Ahead

By 1994, when the World Heritage List had grown to include more than 400 sites, the collection was decidedly lopsided, with a heavy concentration on the monumental and religious architecture of Western Europe. Underdevelopment, lack of resources and instability have combined to perpetuate the regional imbalance. In response, the World Heritage Committee adopted a Global Strategy in the quest for a more representative World Heritage List -- to encourage the inclusion of more natural sites and to achieve a better regional balance and greater thematic diversity, enhancing the List’s credibility. A series of regional expert meetings, seminars and studies was launched aimed at encouraging States Parties to the Convention in underrepresented regions to identify potential sites for inscription on the World Heritage List. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002, more than 30 African States Parties issued a declaration pledging to work towards increasing the number and diversity of African sites on the World Heritage List, as well as boosting World Heritage cooperation within Africa and with the continent’s development partners.
In Venice in November 2002, when the World Heritage community gathers to celebrate the Convention’s 30th anniversary, vital partnership-building is the theme. UNESCO Director General Matsuura said: “We must continue to explore new forms of partnership with the key actors of heritage conservation. … 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.”
The link between heritage conservation and sustainable development has become increasingly clear. In its June 2002 “Budapest Declaration on World Heritage”, the World Heritage Committee vowed to seek “an appropriate and equitable balance between conservation, sustainability and development, so that World Heritage properties can be protected through appropriate activities contributing to the social and economic development and the quality of life of our communities.”
Victoria's Fall

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To World Heritage Centre Director Francesco Bandarin, sustainability remains the key to both the survival of World Heritage and its credibility. “Conservation is by definition a long-term mission. We don’t do it for a year or two, we do it forever.”