Many cultural and natural World Heritage sites are home to indigenous peoples. As the UNESCO policy on engaging with indigenous peoples recognizes, World Heritage sites are often located within land managed by indigenous peoples whose land use, knowledge and cultural and spiritual values and practices are related to heritage. Inspired by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the UNESCO policy embraces the right of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands, territories and recognizes traditional management systems as part of new management approaches. It describes indigenous peoples as stewards of a significant part of the world’s biological, cultural and linguistic diversity and as partners in site conservation and protection activities.
In line with the UNDRIP and UNESCO policy, the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention recognize the role of indigenous peoples in identifying, managing, protecting and presenting World Heritage. In this spirit, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum for World Heritage functions as a reflection platform on involving indigenous peoples in the identification, conservation and management of World Heritage properties, as noted by the World Heritage Committee at 41st session (Kraków, 2017).
In particular, the Operational Guidelines recognize
- Indigenous peoples as stakeholders and rights-holders in the identification, nomination, management and protection processes of World Heritage properties as well as in the presentation of heritage, in line with a human rights based approach (paragraphs 12 and 211 d);
- Full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the preparation of Tentative Lists, i.e. the inventories of sites, which State Parties intend to consider for nomination. Before including sites on their Tentative List, “States Parties shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent” (paragraph 64);
- that biological diversity and cultural diversity are closely linked and interdependent. Human activities may be consistent with the Outstanding Universal Value of the area where they are ecologically sustainable (paragraph 90);
- A thorough shared understanding of the property, its universal, national and local values and its socio-ecological context by all stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, as a possible common element of an effective management system (paragraphs 111 and 117);
- The promotion of effective, inclusive and equitable participation of communities, indigenous peoples and other stakeholders concerned with the property through legislations, policies and strategies as necessary conditions to sustainable protection, conservation, management and presentation of World Heritage properties (paragraph 119);
- Effective and inclusive participation of indigenous peoples in the nomination process to demonstrate that their free, prior and informed consent has been obtained and to enable them to have a shared responsibility with the State Party in the maintenance of the property (paragraph 123);
- Educational and capacity-building programmes that promote sustainable and inclusive economic benefits for local communities and indigenous peoples, including the promotion of local material and resource use and of local cultural and creative industries and safeguarding intangible heritage associated with World Heritage properties (paragraph 214bis);
- Traditional and indigenous knowledge held by local communities and indigenous peoples, with all necessary consent, aiming at demonstrating the contribution that the conservation and management of World Heritage properties, their buffer zones and wider setting make to sustainable development (paragraph 215);
- International Assistance requests of inclusive nature, including the involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples (paragraph 239 j).
Several milestones were achieved in the course of a constantly evolving interpretation of the World Heritage Convention flank the considerations of the Operational Guidelines:
- In 1992, the World Heritage Committee decided to include “cultural landscapes” as a new category of World Heritage properties. As a result of this decision, New Zealand’s “Tongariro National Park” was re-nominated in 1993 and Australia’s “Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park” was re-nominated for its cultural values in 1994, according to the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners. The Committee also accepted traditional management as an adequate form of management for World Heritage properties.
- The launch of the Global Strategy for a Balanced and Representative and Credible World Heritage List in 1994, constituted another important step towards the recognition of indigenous peoples.
- In November 2000, a proposal to establish a World Heritage indigenous people Council of Experts (WHIPCOE) was discussed at the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee in Cairns (Australia). It was well received by the World Heritage Committee and a feasibility study was presented. However, the proposal was ultimately not accepted by the Committee in 2001 as it raised a number of legal concerns and issues relating to the funding, legal status, role and relationships with States Parties, Advisory Bodies, the World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Centre.
- Since 2005, the Operational Guidelines have promoted a “partnership approach to nomination, management and monitoring” as stated in paragraph 40.
- In 2007, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples. This Declaration explicitly addresses the rights of indigenous peoples. In the same year, the Committee adopted a fifth strategic objective for "Communities", better known as the “fifth C”, with the aim “to enhance the role of communities in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention”.
- The involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities in decision making, monitoring and evaluating the state of conservation of properties was encouraged by the World Heritage Committee in 2011.
- In 2012, the World Heritage Convention celebrated its 40th anniversary. It was essential that the anniversary encompassed the entire World Heritage community, including local people. As such, the theme of the anniversary was “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Local Communities”. Among the many events organized worldwide to mark this anniversary year, was the International Expert Workshop on the World Heritage Convention and indigenous peoples in Copenhagen in September 2012. The principal aim of this workshop was to facilitate constructive dialogue with a view to formulating appropriate recommendations to the World Heritage Committee regarding procedures and the Operational Guidelines.
- As a follow-up to the workshop, the Operational Guidelines were amended in 2015 to include specific references to indigenous peoples in paragraphs 40 and 123.
- In 2015, the Word Heritage Committee endorsed the Sustainable Development Policy, which was adopted by the 20th session of the General Assembly of States Parties (Paris, 2015). The policy makes specific reference to “Respecting, consulting and involving indigenous peoples and local communities”, emphasizing that the recognition of rights and the full involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities, in line with international standards, lies at the heart of sustainable development.
- The World Heritage Committee established during its 41st session (Kraków, 2017) the International Indigenous Peoples Forum for World Heritage. This forum’s aim is to elevate the role of indigenous communities in the “identification, conservation and management of World Heritage properties”, as described by the Committee Decision 41 COM 7. The official launch of the forum followed in 2018 during the 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee (Manama, Bahrain). The official webpage of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum for World Heritage can be found at https://iipfwh.org/.
- At the 202nd session of the Executive Board (November 2017), the Director-General submitted the draft Policy document on indigenous peoples, which includes the role of indigenous peoples in the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, especially concerning properties they have contributed to shape. The Executive Board took note of this document as the UNESCO policy on engaging with indigenous peoples.
- 2019 marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages. UNESCO leads the organization of the International Year, following the invitation by the UN General Assembly at its 65th plenary meeting on 19 December 2016. The Executive Board of UNESCO added at its 2018 session that the involvement of indigenous peoples would serve as a point of departure for further consultations with Member States. For the first time during a World Heritage Committee session, the event “Indigenous Languages for the Conservation of World Heritage” (5 July 2019), generously supported by the Government of Canada, highlighted the importance of Indigenous Languages for the safeguarding of World Heritage. The panelists stressed that without languages there is no transmission of community values and stories, and hence no transmission of heritage.
- At the same Committee session, the Operational Guidelines were updated and streamlined with the UNESCO policy on engaging with indigenous peoples.
- UNESCO policy on engaging with indigenous peoples, UNESCO, 2018
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