Your Browser Does Not Support JavaScript. Please Update Your Browser and reload page. Have a nice day! Spotlight: UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention - New

Spotlight: UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention

By Lindsay Dekter

We must construct the defenses of peace in the minds of women and men.

A look at the history, framework, and impact of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention and the work of the World Heritage Committee following UNESCO’s seventieth birthday this past November.

image 1.png
Krakow, Poland, Historic Center, was amongst the first designated sites and the Celsus Library, Ephesus, Turkey, was amongst most recently designated sites. Left image by Ludvig14 / Right image by Benh LIEU SONG

Historical Background

In reaction to the destruction of two world wars, the United Nations, established in 1945, identified the need for an intergovernmental organization with values anchored in peace making and collaboration. The goal of founding such an organization was to unite heterogeneous social and political regimes worldwide in order to prevent the future occurrence of atrocities like those experienced during the first half of the twentieth century. With that in mind, 37 countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the months following the end of the Second World War; within a year, twenty countries, including Egypt, Canada, Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, ratified the Constitution of UNESCO, and met at the first General Conference of UNESCO in November of 1946 in Paris. UNESCO gained more international support in the 1950s and 1960s when additional countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe became members. Seventy years after its inception, UNESCO continues to garner international approval from both long-time and new members, the most recent of which include Montserrat (2015) and Anguilla (2013). Today UNESCO has 195 Member States.

image 2
Distribution of UNESCO Member States by region / Image courtesy of UNESCO

UNESCO was responsible for a number of important global initiatives in its infancy, including recommendations that Member States make primary education “compulsory and universal,” and the extension of international copyright protections. Beginning as early as 1960, UNESCO realized a series of worldwide campaigns and conferences focused on environmental and cultural heritage protection, marking the beginning of the organization’s tenure in a more than half-century-long endeavor in preserving place.

UNESCO and World Heritage

Although UNESCO was officially established in the 1940s, it was not until was 1972 that the General Conference of UNESCO adopted The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. That Convention emerged out of growing international concern for the protection of humanity’s shared natural and cultural heritage, which had become threatened, or in some cases altogether destroyed, by increasing globalization and urbanization during the mid-twentieth century. Four years after adopting the Convention, UNESCO formed the World Heritage Committee (pursuant to Article 8 of the 1972 Convention) to oversee its implementation, allocate monies from the World Heritage Fund (pursuant to Article 15), and consider nominations for inscription on the World Heritage List. The Committee has met annually since 1977 in order to discuss sites on the World Heritage List. During the annual meeting, the Committee reviews the preservation and management of inscribed sites and adds or removes sites from the World Heritage List; any sites in danger are added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The Committee additionally concerns itself with programs aimed to increase States Parties’ involvement in the protection of cultural and natural heritage, and also amends or creates new programs and policies that ensure the ongoing success of the Convention’s goals.

The World Heritage Committee itself is made up of 21 representatives from various signatory nations who are elected during the ordinary session of the General Conference of UNESCO. Members of the Committee can serve for six years, though most elect to serve for only four. 191 countries and territories have signed the World Heritage Convention to date (almost all of UNESCO’s members), meaning they have committed to preserving World Heritage sites located within their political boundaries as well as their national (non-UNESCO inscribed) heritage. The most recent countries/territories to ratify the Convention include Brunei and Palestine (2011), Singapore (2012,) and The Bahamas (2014). The first included the United States in 1973, followed by nine countries including Australia, Bulgaria, Iraq, and Sudan in 1974. 1975 and 1992 were the two biggest years for new signatories, with 10 and 9 new countries ratifying the Convention, respectively.

Identifying World Heritage

What qualifies as World Heritage is defined in Article 1 and 2 of the World Heritage Convention. In short, and informally, UNESCO’s definition of World Heritage includes the natural or cultural wonders of the world (or a combination of the two). More formally, and drawing from the language of Article 1 of the World Heritage Convention, cultural heritage worthy of inscription on the World Heritage List includes: architectural monuments and/or monumental works of art; groups of buildings, connected by geography or style; cultural landscapes that are a mix of monumental art, architecture, and nature; or archaeological sites. Pursuant to Article 2 of the World Heritage Convention, natural heritage includes: physical, geological, physiological, and/or biological formations or groups of such formations; areas that represent the habitat or of threatened animals and plants; or sites of considerable value to science and conservation, or that represent places of considerable beauty. Any site that is considered World Heritage, natural or cultural, must demonstrate “outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science,” or “outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.”

Outstanding Universal Value is precisely the operative principle guiding States Parties in selecting sites for consideration as additions to the World Heritage List. There are ten criteria under which a site can be understood as having Outstanding Universal Value, outlined in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. For a site to be eligible for inscription on the World Heritage List, it must represent at least one of the ten criteria, which includes qualities like creative genius, uniqueness, associations with events, people, or places of historical importance, natural phenomena, aesthetic importance, habit preservation, cultural traditions, and so on.

In addition to Outstanding Universal Value, the Committee considers the integrity and authenticity of a site, as well as how the site will be managed and protected. Integral to site management is a State Party’s ability to demonstrate legislative or other regulatory protective frameworks at either the national or local level, as well as plans for monitoring and reporting changes and activity at the site. Each year the Committee considers no more than 45 nominations for review, with priority given to unrepresented or underrepresented States Parties and/or underrepresented types of heritage. No State Party may submit more than two nominations at one time, or one natural and one cultural heritage nomination.

Nominating World Heritage

The nomination process begins well before the official dossier is compiled and submitted to the Secretariat by a State Party. A site is only considered for nomination once a State Party creates and submits a tentative list of properties that interested parties (NGOs, INGOs, government agencies, cultural groups, and other stakeholders) agree exhibit Outstanding Universal Value per the World Heritage Convention and Operational Guidelines. The Tentative List must be submitted at least one year prior to the submission of an official nomination, and a nomination can only be submitted for a site that appears on the list. Once the Tentative List is submitted, it is up to the State Party to revise the list, although the Committee recommends States Parties update tentative lists every ten years.

Following the submission of a Tentative List, the State Party must then complete the official dossier for its nominated site. A complete nomination includes the following nine components:

  • Identification of the property;
  • A description of the property;
  • The justification for inscription (paragraph 77 of the Operational Guidelines);
  • A description of the state of conservation of the site and any factors that affect the site;
  • Plans for protection and management;
  • Monitoring plans;
  • All documentation relating to the site (drawings, maps, archival documents, photographs);
  • Contact information for the site’s authority;
  • The signature of the State Party (nominator).

Recognizing that States Parties may require assistance during the nomination process, the World Heritage Committee offers support by providing samples of successful dossiers, examples of robust legal protections and management plans, and direction and information for accessing archival or other documentary material; templates are also provided for organizing documentary material. Additionally, and upon request, the Secretariat will review draft dossiers and provide comments to the nominating State Party prior to official submission.

image 3
 Map of all UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites as of 2015 / Image by NordNordWest

Once complete, the dossier is registered by the Secretariat and then passed on to the appropriate cultural or natural resources Advisory Body, either ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) or IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). One of three recommendations is then made: inscribe the site to the World Heritage List; do not inscribe the site to the World Heritage List; or refer or defer for further research, explanation, or documentation. A successful nomination usually takes one and a half years from the time the dossier is registered to when a site is inscribed to the World Heritage List. The process cannot be completed in a shorter timeframe due to the requirement for registering a site on the Tentative List and the time required to conduct thorough site-specific research. Furthermore, a successful nomination often requires coordination between local, national, and international stakeholders, which in itself can be a multi-year process.

The World Heritage List

The World Heritage List was created in 1978 as a primary function of realizing the protection of world heritage under the World Heritage Convention. Per Article 11 (2) of the Convention, the World Heritage Committee must maintain and publish an up-to-date list of sites. The first sites were inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1978—12 in total—and included the Historic Centre of Kraków (Poland), Aachen Cathedral (Germany), Yellowstone National Park (United States), and Simien National Park (Ethiopia), to name a few. Today there are 1031 total sites that represent 163 States Parties, 24 of which were added during the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Germany in July of 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 12.54.09 PM
Aachen Cathedral, Germany, and Simien National Park, Ethiopia, were amongst the first twelve sites inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1978. Left image by Ministry of Building and Transport / Right image by Christof Schenck

The benefits of inscription are numerous and can include financial support, advocacy, physical conservation, economic development opportunities, international awareness, and political protection, amongst others. One of the earliest inscribed sites, the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur in Egypt, added to the World Heritage List in 1979, benefited from the expertise, financial support, and political influence of inscription when infrastructure development threatened the site’s integrity in the mid 1990s. Following evaluation, reporting, and reminders of Egypt’s obligations to protect the site as a signatory of the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO successfully negotiated development alternatives with the Egyptian government to preserve the integrity and Outstanding Universal Value of the site. The World Heritage Convention has been successfully used as a political and regulatory tool numerous times over the last four decades as evidenced by sites like the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, where UNESCO challenged a river diversion project that would have threatened wildlife protection, and the Old City of Dubrovnik, where UNESCO provided financial support and professional expertise to repair historic buildings damaged by war in the early 1990s. Had these sites not been inscribed on the World Heritage List, their preservation would have been more difficult and certainly not realized in such an effective and quick way, if at all.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 12.57.49 PM
Royal Chitwan National Park and the Old City of Dubrovnik received political and financial support for preservation thanks to inscription. Left Image by Casper Tybjerg / Right Image by Francesco Bandarin

The List of World Heritage in Danger

An integral component for thwarting unwanted change to world heritage sites—change that is incongruent with the World Heritage Convention—is the List of World Heritage in Danger. The List of World Heritage in Danger is a function of the World Heritage Convention, Article 11 (4), that allows the Committee to monitor and respond to both “ascertained” and “potential” danger at inscribed sites (Paragraphs 179 and 180 of the Operational Guidelines). It “is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action.” Corrective action is manifested in a variety of ways, depending on the threat, the site, and other factors, and can include launching an awareness campaign or reconstruction of a damaged site. Although States Parties are supposed to inform the World Heritage Committee of threats to a site’s Outstanding Universal Value, UNESCO welcomes dialogue about these issues from any person or organization. There are currently 48 sites on The List of World Heritage in Danger (roughly 5% of inscribed sites). A site is removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger only once the appropriate measures have been taken to restore the site’s heritage value, or when its Outstanding Universal Value has been or will be altogether destroyed with no plan for remedy. In the latter case, which is very rare, the site is removed from the World Heritage List.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 1.02.22 PM
Hatra, Iraq, and Old City of Sana’a, Yemen, both added to the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2015, and likely destroyed (at least partially) during conflict and/or acts of terror in the region this year. This information, unfortunately, has not been updated in UNESCO’s database or documents. Left Image by Véronique Dauge / Right Image by Jean-Jacques Gelbart

Since the inception of the World Heritage List, only two sites have been delisted. The first, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, was delisted in 2007 following increased poaching and habitat destruction within the conservation area; the second, the Dresden Elbe Valley, was added to the List of World Heritage in danger in 2006 and delisted in 2009 following a plan to construct a four-lane bridge through the center of the landscape. In both cases the Committee worked with the States Parties to find some resolution, but determined that the Outstanding Universal Value inherent to each site had been or would be destroyed by the respective countries’ decisions. The List of World Heritage in Danger is an integral component of the Convention that allows the Committee to exercise its power over site management, but is not without limitations. For example, some sites have been on the list since the 1980s and 1990s, while other sites on the List have been completely destroyed.


The World Heritage List has been generally successful at promoting the preservation of inscribed sites. Indeed, inscription on the World Heritage List gives States Parties access to financial support and international conservation campaigns, and gives them greater access to specialist knowledge through international partner organizations, which in theory contributes to better preservation and site management. Like the Pyramid Fields in Egypt mentioned previously, many sites have benefited from inscription on the World Heritage List over the last four decades, including the Archaeological site of Delphi in Greece, where development was thwarted in favor of inscription, or the safeguarding of Venice, UNESCO’s longest running campaign and inspiration for the creation of the World Heritage Convention. Even sites believed to suffer irreparable damage like the Old City of Mostar or the mausoleums recently destroyed in Timbuktu have benefited from inscription, drawing the attention and support of the international community for reconstruction.  

The world has recently witnessed the shortcomings of the World Heritage Convention, however, which is particularly evident at many sites in the Middle East that, despite inscription, could not be saved from complete destruction. The Temple of Baalshamin. the Temple of Bel, and the Arch of Triumph, all located in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, or Hatra in Iraq, are just a few of the many UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage sites destroyed by the Islamic State. The list grows when sites destroyed by other militant groups or acts of war are included, such as Aleppo in Syria, or when the Tentative List is considered, where sites awaiting inscription to the official World Heritage List have already been obliterated (the Ancient City of Nineveh in Iraq, for example) . Despite numerous international campaigns that sought to prevent damage to these sites, the lack of political influence from the world’s foremost heritage preservation organization was made abundantly clear, and its inability to mandate preservation and assist States Parties in protecting their sites has frustrated many. The situation has reached the point that many individuals and small organizations are now leading monitoring and response projects rather than UNESCO itself. In fact, UNESCO has yet to update any information about the aforementioned sites (and others in danger) on their website. Certainly the protections and resources inscription affords should not be minimized since positive outcomes are evident, nor should the knowledge, intentions, or contributions of individuals working within UNESCO. Yet the limitations of the World Heritage Convention, particularly with regard to its inability to protect heritage in times of conflict, or the lack of authority it wields in sanctioning States Parties who fail to comply, have become increasingly visible as global hostilities intensify. In light of these trends the efficacy of UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention in promoting peace and preservation outside of times of peace does seem minimal, if not entirely impossible. While the ideology of the Convention is proactive in nature, its power, it seems, is in its ability to treat a wound rather than prevent it.

image 10
Temple of Bel, Palmyra, before and after satellite images of Islamic State led destruction. This site was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2013, and despite numerous international campaigns, could not be saved. Image courtesy of The Times.

To that end, and as the result of the recent and unprecedented destruction of World Heritage sites, the influence and value of UNESCO, particularly the cultural arm responsible for the World Heritage Convention, has come under considerable scrutiny. Perhaps the recent Islamic State led destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites (and other war-related destruction in the region) will one day be counteracted by virtue of inscription like the sites in Mostar and Timbuktu. While certainly reconstruction is not the ideal method of heritage preservation, recent events elucidate a systemic failure in UNESCO’s ability to proactively protect world heritage when it is most vulnerable, and instead points toward its capacity and proficiency for triage post-conflict. Considering, though, the powerful language of UNESCO’s Constitution that elaborates a commitment to peace, collaboration, and mutual respect and welfare on a global level, it is obvious the organization’s initiatives and members were not intended to simply observe and respond to world affairs once the air has cleared, but to instead lead through the haze. With that in mind, it may be time to reevaluate UNESCO’s international influence generally. More specifically, and with the knowledge of more than forty years of practice, it is almost certainly time to revisit the World Heritage Convention in order to establish what it is actually capable of achieving, and whether authoritative leadership is an improbable fantasy or feasible reality. Whatever the case, adjustment to either doctrine or practice (or both) is necessary.

Select Sources:

  • World Heritage Centre, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO, file:///Users/Home/Downloads/document-57-1.pdf (July 8, 2015).

*About the Author: Lindsay Dekter is a Center for Art Law Intern (Fall 2015) and a graduate student at New York University in the Program in Museum Studies. She holds a BA in Cultural Geography and an MS in Historic Preservation. Her current studies focus on museums and legal issues, cultural heritage policy and preservation, ethics, provenance research, and restitution.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.