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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The World Heritage Convention

The World Heritage Convention is an international treaty intended to identify and help conserve natural and cultural sites of global significance. These sites are officially recognized by inclusion in the World Heritage List. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—a specialized agency of the United Nations—maintains this list. Established in 1945, UNESCO's purpose is "to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture."1

UNESCO launched its first international campaign to protect an important heritage site in the late 1950s. At that time, ancient temples of Egypt were in danger of being submerged by the creation of a dam on the Nile River. Under UNESCO's direction, 50 countries came together and donated a total of $80 million to save the site. Ultimately the temples were dismantled and re-erected out of the reach of the flood waters. This extraordinary campaign demonstrated that some sites are so valuable that they form part of the common heritage of mankind. The project also showed that the peoples of the world acknowledged responsibility for protecting such important sites.

As a result of the project in Egypt, UNESCO partnered with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to prepare a document on the importance of protecting the world's cultural heritage. The United States and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) proposed combining the conservation of cultural and natural sites. On November 16, 1972, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The aim of the Convention is to "protect, conserve, preserve and transmit cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value to future generations." The phrase "outstanding universal value" means that the disappearance of such sites through natural disasters, war, increased urbanization, and simple neglect would be an irreplaceable loss for the entire world. The Convention strongly asserted that it is our moral and financial obligation to protect this common heritage through international co-operation.

The Convention was the first comprehensive international document calling attention to the urgent need to identify and protect our cultural and natural heritage. To facilitate these activities, it established the World Heritage List and created the World Heritage Committee to implement the ideas expressed in the Convention. The World Heritage Convention outlines a practical procedure for helping to protect important sites. Participating countries, referred to as State Parties, agree to assume responsibility for identifying, nominating, and protecting important sites, with the assistance and support of the World Heritage Committee. Furthermore, the Convention set up the World Heritage Fund to provide financial assistance to World Heritage Sites. State Parties and various organizations or individuals contribute to this fund.

The World Heritage Committee defined cultural heritage sites as monuments, groups of buildings, and sites. These sites must meet at least one of the following criteria to be considered of outstanding universal significance.

Sites should:
    1. represent a masterpiece of human creative genius (e.g. the Taj Mahal, India); or
    2. exhibit an important interchange of human values…on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design (e.g. the Acropolis, Greece); or
    3. bear a unique…testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization (e.g. the Great Wall, China); or
    4. be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape… (e.g. Historic Centre of Florence, Italy); or
    5. be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement or land use… (e.g. Jesuit Missions, Bolivia); or
    6. be…associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, United States).

If a country believes it possesses sites that fit the criteria and would like the sites to be considered for inclusion on the World Heritage List, it must take the following steps:

    1. Become a State Party by signing the World Heritage Convention and pledging to protect their cultural and natural heritage.
    2. Prepare a tentative list of cultural and natural heritage sites in its territory that it believes are of outstanding universal value.
    3. Select sites from its tentative list for nomination to the World Heritage List.
    4. Send a completed nomination form to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for each site proposed. The nomination must justify why the site is universally important (according to criteria established by the World Heritage Committee) and must prove that the site is well protected and managed.

Upon receiving a completed nomination form, the World Heritage Centre forwards it to ICOMOS for evaluation. ICOMOS experts then visit the site, determine if it meets the appropriate criteria, and make an evaluation report. The 21 members of the World Heritage Committee review both the nomination and the ICOMOS report and participate in an examination of the nomination, as presented by representatives of ICOMOS, at the Committee's annual meeting. The Committee then decides whether or not to inscribe the site on the World Heritage List. A similar process is applied for natural site nominations.

World Heritage conservation is an ongoing process. New sites are added to the World Heritage List each year, but existing sites also are monitored. State Parties provide reports on the status of World Heritage Sites, and any sites that are seriously threatened are placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. This step is intended to bring international attention to the need for ongoing protection of the site.

By 2006, there were 830 sites in 138 State Parties on the World Heritage List. Of these, 644 are cultural, 162 natural, and 24 are mixed properties that meet the criteria for both natural and cultural sites. The United States has had 20 sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. The designation of Independence Hall, one of only eight U.S. cultural sites on the list, testifies to the building's global impact and its significant place in world history.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What is the World Heritage Convention? What event prompted its establishment?

2. In your own words, briefly describe how a site is added to the World Heritage List.

3. Do you agree that the significance of some cultural and natural sites reaches beyond the country in which it is located and extends to the global community? Explain your answer.

4. Do you agree that it is important for the global community to work together to identify and protect cultural and natural resources? Why or why not? What might have happened to sites like Independence Hall if efforts were not made to restore and protect them?

5. Which World Heritage List criteria do you think Independence Hall meets? Explain your answer.

Reading 3 was compiled from Breda Pavlic, Elizabeth Khawajkie, and Sarah Titchen, World Heritage in Young Hands: To Know, Cherish, and Act (UNESCO, 1998) and UNESCO's World Heritage web pages (http://whc.unesco.org/).

1 As cited in the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, adopted in London on November 16, 1945.

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