Timbuktu, Mali, was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012. The monument was destroyed in October 2012. Photo: Leslie Lewis, 2011
When the World Heritage Convention was adopted by UNESCO in 1972, it became the first international treaty linking the concepts of nature conservation and preservation of cultural properties. Since then, while nearly 1,000 cultural and natural properties have enjoyed increased global publicity and protection as a result of the World Heritage label, the convention has also become increasingly scrutinized by developers and conservationists alike.
A feature in November’s issue of The Art Newspaper addresses some of the convention’s critics, which range from pro-development groups arguing that the World Heritage Committee interferes with Western planning decisions, to conservationists who accuse the program of being toothless, penniless, and overly politicized. Two GHF team members were called upon to help answer the question at hand: “World Heritage at 40: success or mess?”
John Hurd, GHF’s Senior Technical Advisor and President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Advisory Committee, sees the convention, in part, as a product of war — inspired by the “fantastic fear” that followed the Second World War, put together “for the sake of world peace.” He believes that still holds true for the UN today, as global events continually challenge the sustainability of World Heritage Sites.
The Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012. The monumental statues had been the largest ancient statues of standing Buddhas on Earth until the Taliban dynamited them in 2001. Photo: Sgt. Ken Scar, 2012
As an organization, UNESCO is not a mighty enforcer. Like Hurd says, “There is no heritage army” to defend against armed conflict, and even in cases where inscribed sites are failing to meet World Heritage standards, UNESCO’s options for sanctions are effectively limited to bad publicity — placing a site on its List of World Heritage in Danger, or threatening to de-list it (which has only happened twice).
Still, there is no questioning the value of a World Heritage inscription, which can instantly attract visitors to a site, thereby stimulating economic growth both locally and nationally. As a result of this, Hurd agrees that the inscription process has become more politicized, with sites being listed against the advice of advisory bodies, as states parties chase tourism dollars.
The article also points out the recent budget cuts to UNESCO, including the $80 million withdrawn by the U.S. in 2011 (nearly a quarter of the organization’s budget) after the admission of Palestine as a member state. More and more, non-profit organizations like GHF are being relied upon to support and facilitate major conservation projects, while UNESCO shifts emphasis to states parties to care for their own sites.
Francesco Bandarin, ex-Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, calls tourism “the main challenge for heritage conservation in the 21st century.” Photo: tartahart/Flickr
Another concern for conservationists is the “problem of success” attributed to the rise in popularity at World Heritage Sites, where factors like rapid urbanization and increased tourism exposure can threaten a site’s sustainability. Vince Michael, GHF’s Chief Conservation Officer, suggests that this reflects a need on the part of states parties to diversify their cultural resources and invest in more sites, in order to lessen the impact of rising tourism on a single place.
“Many planning efforts to address the issue, such as the plan developed for Angkor, have failed owing to weak local enforcement,” Michael says. “Arguably, more sites on the list would spread the tourism out rather than focusing it on a few must-see sites. [GHF] works on sites in Cambodia and Peru that are as rich and interesting as Angkor and Machu Picchu but are overlooked because they lack World Heritage inscription.”
This imbalance against developing countries, where the World Heritage List is concerned, is a pattern GHF has been working to change since 2002. The Art Newspaper recognizes improvements in recent years, but agrees that “it needs to change further as more nations build their capacity to nominate and manage sites.”
The Umayyad Mosque, set ablaze in October, was the latest Syrian landmark damaged in Aleppo’s walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en danger
Perhaps the most topical question facing the World Heritage Centre is its ability (or lack thereof) to protect World Heritage Sites from war and conflict. The recent conflicts in Syria and Mali have triggered international headlines based on damage to monuments in Aleppo and Timbuktu, similar to the shocking destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 and Mostar’s Stari Most bridge in 1993.
“We can’t do anything about armed groups walking around destroying things,” says Hurd, who instead points to preventative measures taken in places like Libya, where combatants were supplied with inventories of sites to be avoided. “Very few heritage sites suffered from bombardment, and because of the process of listing the sites, locals began to defend their heritage on the ground. We are doing the same thing in Syria and Mali — registering every significant and not so significant heritage property. That’s all we can do.”
Click here to read the November issue of The Art Newspaper