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

Spotlight: UNESCO and World Heritage


By Lindsay Dekter*

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


What are the history, framework, and impact of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention (established in 1972) and the work of the World Heritage Committee (established 1978) as UNESCO celebrates seventy years of success?

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 educational and cultural 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 (give 1-2 examples Bombing of Dresden? trophy brigads? napoleonic takings?). In the months following the end of the Second World War, 37 countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); within a year twenty countries including Egypt, Canada, Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, to name a few, ratified the Constitution of UNESCO. The most recent signatories to the constitution include Montserrat (2015) and Anguilla (2013). The first General Conference of UNESCO was held in November of 1946 [where? and don’t meetings move from one country to another?]]. UNESCO gained more international support when additional member from Asia, Africa, and Europe became signatories in the 1950s and 1960s. Today UNESCO has 195 Member States. 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.

Although UNESCO was officially established in 1946, 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 was born 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 the increasing globalization and urbanization of the mid twentieth century. Four years later, UNESCO formed the World Heritage Committee (pursuant to Article 8 of the 1972 Convention) to oversee the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, allocate monies from the World Heritage Fund (pursuant to Article 15), and hear nominations for world heritage sites in order to determine their validity for inscription on the World Heritage List. In its modern operations, UNESCO hosts an annual General Conference so that members may propose changes to the World Heritage List, review the state of preservation at current world heritage sites and evaluating new sites for inscription. In addition, the Committee 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 comprised of 21 representatives from various signatory nations who are elected during the biennial meeting of the General Assembly of States Parties, a sub-meeting of the annual convention (Article 8 (1)). The most recent countries to ratify the Convention include Brunei and Palestine respectively in 2011, Singapore in 2012, and The Bahamas in 2014. The first included the United State (1973), followed by nine more countries in 1974 including Australia, Bulgaria, Iraq, and Sudan. 1975 and 1992 were the two biggest years for new signatories, with 10 and 9 new countries ratifying the Convention, respectively.

To protect it, define it

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 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, as outlined in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. In addition to the physical properties of the site that determine its eligibility for the World Heritage List, it must represent at least one of the ten criteria for Outstanding Universal Value. These include values such as 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.

Inscribing Heritage: The Nomination

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 property 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 their list every ten years.

Following the submission of its Tentative List, the State Party (that submitted the nomination?) must then complete the official dossier for their 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 them with 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, the Secretariat will review draft dossiers and provide comments to the nominating State Party prior to their official submission upon request.

Once complete, the dossier is registered by the Secretariat. Once registered, the nomination is 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), respectively. 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 result of registering the site on the Tentative List, conducting site-specific research, and facilitating action between local, national, and international stakeholders.

World Heritage List Inscription

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 properties.

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.

The benefits of inscription are numerous and include financial support, advocacy, physical conservation, economic development, and political protection, amongst others. One of the earliest inscribed sites, the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur in Egypt, inscribed in 1979, benefited from the expertise, financial support, and political power inscription offers 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 similarly been used as a powerful political and regulatory tool numerous times over the last four decades, and with great success, 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, or 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 for future generations likely could not have been realized in such an effective way, if at all.

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 should 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, which allows the World Heritage Committee to prioritize preservation activities and develop site-specific action plans with States Parties. 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.

Since the inception of the World Heritage List, only two sites have been delisted following attempted negotiations and awareness campaigns meant to mitigate the danger that saw the sites added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. 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.

World Heritage Successes

The World Heritage List has been very successful at promoting the preservation of inscribed sites, seeing as only two of 1031 have been removed from the World Heritage List over the last four decades. Other indicators of success include increased global awareness of World Heritage Sites through tourism and media such as film, literature, and the news, and the growth of academic programs, conferences, and trainings that prepare more people each year for careers in the growing heritage sector. Sites on the list have benefited from inscription in numerous ways, be it increased international awareness due to the special status inscription bestows upon a site, or the documentation of a site and implementation of a conservation and management plan that is required as part of the nomination and inscription process (and for maintenance of inscribed status). Furthermore, inscription on the World Heritage List allows access to financial support, international conservation campaigns, and provides States Parties with access to the specialist knowledge of experts and international organizations required for preservation, and allows sites in danger of loss or destruction to be moved to the List in Danger.

191 countries and territories have signed the World Heritage Convention to date, meaning they have committed to preserving both World Heritage located within their political boundaries, as well as their national (non-UNESCO inscribed) heritage. Like the Pyramid Fields in Egypt mentioned previously, numerous 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 threats to the site were thwarted in favor of inscription on the World Heritage List, or the safeguarding of Venice, UNESCO’s longest running campaign and an inspiration for the creation of the World Heritage Convention. Even sites that were believed to suffer irreparable damage like the Old Bridge in Mostar or the mausoleums recently destroyed in Timbuktu benefited from inscription by drawing the attention and support of the international community in rebuilding efforts thanks to the World Heritage Committee. Perhaps like those two sites, the the Islamic State led destruction of World Heritage sites and communities in the Middle East will one day be counteracted by their World Heritage inscription, be it through physical or digital reconstruction, educational programs, or some other UNESCO led programming.


As the definition of heritage shifts to include not just the tangible but intangible (music, dance, oral history, and food), and the previously accepted standard of universal value expands to include new types of heritage and new geographies, the World Heritage List and States Parties committed to upholding the World Heritage Convention has become increasingly diversified and much more inclusive. And despite the recent destruction of world heritage sites, the process, as initially conceived, continues to promote international cooperation through the preservation of place, whether it be proactive to promote economic or community development through tourism, or reactive to address real or perceived loss, as in the case of war or more recently acts of terror engineered by the Islamic State, infrastructure development, or natural disaster. As Director-General Irina Bokova noted in her May 2015 lecture to the academic community at the Estonian Academy of Arts, the safeguarding of heritage continues “to strengthen humanity as a single community.”


Selected 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.