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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.
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.
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.
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.
* * * * *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.”