The 40th Committee Meeting of the World Heritage Center of UNESCO was recently held in Istanbul, Turkey.
Global Heritage Fund attended the conference because we have a firm belief in the power of individuals and their institutions to create positive change in the world. We met with our partners in academia, nonprofits, intergovernmental institutions, and state parties in order to forge greater ties within the heritage sector, but also to participate in the largest gathering of heritage policymakers in the world. By working within this international system, we help to make the creation of strong legal frameworks for the protection of heritage more likely, and when created, more likely to succeed.
The optimism engendered by this gathering does not, however, preclude the facts on the ground. It is a long-standing misconception that UNESCO inscription is a panacea that will bring legal protection, funding, and development for cultural heritage sites. Instead, over the last 20 years, UNESCO has more than doubled the number of its inscribed sites from 505 to 1,031. In the same time, its overall funding for the World Heritage Fund, which provides funding for World Heritage Sites, has decreased from $3.5 million to $2.9 million. That’s a total loss of 17 percent and a per-site decrease of 59 percent. This is less than Global Heritage Fund’s operating budget, and as was extensively discussed by state parties during the general assembly, an untenable position for an international body of this caliber. All delegates unanimously agreed that a larger budget and a broader mandate are critical to moving forward with UNESCO’s mission in 2016 and beyond.
Part of the problem is that the World Heritage Committee is not an executive body, but an advisory one. Although it makes binding policies, it relies on its member governments to implement the laws it passes. Working together with governments is thus the first and most important step in any conservation effort. If one government believes that conservation must be sacrificed to development, for example, heritage sites tend to be neglected and so fall victim to environmental damage, looting, or worse. As Assistant Director–General of UNESCO, Francesco Banderin, so succinctly put it, “if governments don’t like it, they don’t do it!” However, if that same government can be shown that economic development and heritage conservation are not mutually exclusive, but are rather linked, it becomes possible to reimagine heritage assets as catalysts of positive economic change instead of dead weights on the national budget.
Just as important as inscribing a site onto the UNESCO World Heritage list is inscribing it in the hearts of the people who live with it, farm around it, play in it, govern it. Heritage, whether tangible or intangible, songs or stories or temples, is the living remnant of the past. Giving the people of today ownership over and pride in what their ancestors created is just as powerful as the law, and perhaps even more so: a law may bind a person to do something, but it is self-interest that makes it certain they will do it. As we tragically observed with the Taliban or ISIS, no number of international regulations could have stopped them from destroying precious heritage sites like the Bamiyan buddhas or the Temple of Ba’al. And as we saw in Romana Montana in Romania or Gezi Park in Turkey, when people value their culture, no laws or government contracts can stop them from protecting it.
Persuasion, not force, is the key to ensuring the help of the government and the support of the people. Stability and the rule of law, not arbitrary whims, are the necessary pre-requisites for the conservation of heritage. Creating a sympathetic system where governments, people, and the national interest are aligned and work together for their common good is one of the pillars of Global Heritage Fund’s approach to conservation. It is also, we believe, essential to good governance.
UNESCO faces daunting problems, but where and when they are unable to provide essential services, private NGOs can fill the gaps. “We need a combination of governmental and non-governmental groups,” says Banderin. “Governmental systems around heritage are quite big and powerful and articulated and cover the planet, so that’s our strength. Our limit is that we can’t do everything. So in my ideal world, there should be a match between these two systems. We should support and foster civil society organizations that can have a voice, play a role, and put a dent in things. As of today, we are very far from that. If you look at the world of international NGOs in the field, who is there? Very few. I have always supported every single organization that comes to the forefront and the creation of a larger civil society block in the field of heritage. Let’s work together!”
He continued: “The international heritage organization is not very strong. It is made up of a few elements, and you can count them on one hand. It’s suffering from a lot of issues: resources, access, the need to fight big battles that are bigger than us. We need to be more compact and united, and I would really encourage Global Heritage Fund, now that you’ve found a balance and an incredible stance in the way you do things, to be closer to the rest of the community [in these efforts].”
The remainder of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee Meeting, which was put on hold due to the attempted coup of July 15-16 in Turkey, will resume from October 24-26 at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, France.