Historically, it was the Aswan dam project which brought about the Convention. In 1959, UNESCO launched an international campaign to save the Abou Simbel temple and the Philae temple from flooding, and thanks to the efforts of several States, they were finally moved. This event shows that it is necessary for countries to cooperate to preserve exceptional cultural sites.
Other international campaigns of the same kind followed and UNESCO then prepared a Convention project solely on cultural heritage. Finally, mainly through encouragement from the United States, it was a Convention on both the world’s cultural and natural heritage that was adopted. This is what is why the Convention is original. The Convention defines the type of natural or cultural sites that deserve to be registered on the « World heritage List » and which then (theoretically) receive particular attention and protection.
To figure on the World heritage List (1), sites have to have « exceptional universal value » and meet (at least) one of the ten selection criteria fixed by the Convention. Amongst these criteria, the site has to « bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared » for example. The historical San Marino Historic Centre and Mount Titano were registered based on these criteria as proof of the continuity of an independent republic since the mediaeval period (site with surrounding walls, towers, convents…). The site can also « contain natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance ».
This is the case of the Mount Sanqingshan National Park in China. Its landscape is made up of peaks and granite columns which look like human and animal silhouettes. Property can also « contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity ». The Socotra Archipelago in Yemen (where the majority of reptiles and snails cannot be found anywhere else) and the New Caledonia lagoons with great coral diversity were recently registered on this basis.
The selection criteria are regularly revised by the World Heritage Committee, to take the evolution of the notion of « heritage » into account. Thus, since 1992, the notion of cultural landscapes has been recognised, to reflect the major interactions between man and his natural environment. There is also a List of World Heritage in danger. (31 sites).
Effects and implementation
The Convention sets the duties of the States Parties in identifying potential sites, and outlines their role in protecting sites. By signing the Convention, each State commits to not only ensuring that registered sites on its territory are well conserved but also to protect its national heritage. The States are also encouraged to integrate the protection of such heritage in regional planning programs, to put staff and services on their sites, to undertake scientific studies for conservation and to make the public aware of the value of the registered properties (information and education programs). A world heritage fund has been set up to financially assist the States.
The World heritage List is now made up of 878 properties, including 679 cultural sites, 174 natural sites and 25 mixed sites. This imbalance led the Committee to launch the « Global Strategy » in 1994 for a balanced, representative and credible World heritage List. New types of sites are favoured, like cultural itineraries, industrial heritage, deserts and small insular sites. As a result of this strategy, the number of signatory countries as well as the number of States submitting lists of sites increased.
To encourage the diversity of underrepresented sites (vernacular architecture for example) and improve the geographical coverage of the Convention (Europe is currently underrepresented), the Committee recently decided to limit the number of proposals that can be submitted by each Party. The UNESCO Convention can in fact be accused of having only targeted, for the moment, exceptional heritage thus favouring an elitist approach to site protection.
It should be added that the Convention’s implementation also has to deal with increasing cultural conflicts, as can be seen by the destruction of two large buddhas in the Bamyan valley (Afghanistan) by the Taliban. Even though UNESCO had tried to stop them being destroyed through the press of countries which were « friendly » with the regime, the latter did not recognise the convention or the legitimacy of the organisation. The two buddhas which were registered on the List of World Heritage in danger in 2003 were not rebuilt as it would have been too expensive. Efforts are now being made in two directions, strengthening a cliff and niches in particular and the quest of a third Lying Buddha which is thought to be in the valley.
Now, UNESCO can no longer intervene as freely as before to save endangered heritage (like it did in Egypt), and it also has to face a lack of funding.
The General Assembly of State Parties to the World Heritage Convention and the Committee have a normative role (they take decisions such as whether a site should be registered or not), whilst the States Parties are responsible for managing and monitoring property.
The States regularly have to give the World Heritage Committee reports on the state of their property’s conservation. These reports are crucial for the Committee’s work. It recently chose to favour a region by region approach.(2). The Committee studies and responds to periodic reports. It is on this basis that it makes its recommendations.
There is also a « responsive » follow-up procedure, which stipulates that the States must provide specific reports and impact studies each time that an exceptional event occurs (armed conflicts, natural disasters) or that works which could have an effect on the state of the conservation site are undertaken.