Saving Places of Unique Importance A UNESCO Program Works to Preserve the Sites of Mankind's Common Heritage

Article excerpt

FREDERICO MAYOR, director general of UNESCO, recalls the discomfort he experienced earlier this year when he arrived in a ravaged Cambodia for a preservation mission to the famed ruins of Angkor Wat.

The civil-war-scarred southeast Asian country was a tumult of human needs, fears, and aspirations, and here was the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization coming to express international concern for a pile of rocks.

But it was the Cambodian people themselves who laid Mr. Mayor's concerns to rest, he says. Enthusiastic about his visit, they told him time and again, "We need to be proud of our past in order to prepare our future."

Mayor cites this experience to illustrate the importance of UNESCO's World Heritage List, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. At a time when ethnic, nationalist, and economic conflicts are affecting people around the globe, he says, it is increasingly important to preserve and commemorate the natural wonders and historical sites that constitute mankind's common patrimony.

"We are at a pivotal moment in history in the march from oppression to liberty," says Mayor. "The only heritage that remains whole and which we all share is the future," he adds, "but to realize its promise we must have the memory of our past."

The preservation of mankind's common heritage is the fundamental purpose behind the World Heritage List, which to date includes 358 sites in 83 countries - ranging from ruins at the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran and the Acropolis in Athens, to Independence Hall, Philadelphia, and the Grand Canyon in the United States.

The UNESCO program seeks to identify the sites of "unique and universal value" around the world, to monitor their preservation, and to help nations develop plans for restoration and protection where needed.

Countries with registered sites commit to protecting them. That is one reason why Cambodia's Angkor temples are not yet on the World Heritage List. Deep in a UN-sponsored pacification and democratization program, Cam- bodia has not had time to develop the necessary preservation and protection plan. UNESCO officials hope the work can be completed to place the famous monuments on the list by the end of this year, however.

In addition, member states of the World Heritage convention - now numbering 127 - enlist to respect the examples of this common heritage in other countries, while making annual financial contributions for their preservation.

The list, whose creation in 1972 followed a growing public consciousness during the 1960s of threatened natural and archaeological treasures, constitutes one of the first expressions of what French President Francois Mitterrand termed, in a 1991 speech to the UN General Assembly, an international "right to intervene."

The seeds of the World Heritage List effort were planted in the early '60s, when news that Egypt's Aswan Dam would flood the famed Egyptian and Nubian monuments led to an international campaign to move them. UNESCO's then-director general, Rene Maheu, spearheaded an international drive that eventually raised more than $30 million for the monuments' preservation.

That experience awakened a realization that development and population pressures would continue to pose mounting threats to irreplaceable sites around the world - often in countries least able financially to guarantee the monuments' protection.

The idea for a World Heritage List was formally adopted in 1972 at the UN's Conference on the Human Environment. …