The World Heritage Convention: A New Idea Takes Shape

UNESCO Courier, October 1990 | Go to article overview
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The World Heritage Convention: A New Idea Takes Shape


The World Heritage Convention: a new idea takes shape

The "Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" or World Heritage Convention is a legal instrument through which states voluntarily commit themselves to protect monuments and sites within their territory that are recognized to be of such outstanding value that safeguarding them concerns humanity as a whole. States parties to the Convention also undertake to respect the heritage of universal value located on the territory of other states and to make a financial contribution towards safeguarding this heritage in countries which lack the means to do so.

One hundred and twelve states are already parties to the Convention.

1960, a decisive year

In the 1960s, there was a danger that the monuments of Nubia would be permanently submerged beneath the waters of the Nile following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The international community became aware that the disappearance of these monuments would be an irreparable loss, not only for Egypt and the Sudan, but for humanity as a whole. It was clear that the considerable resources required to save the monuments were beyond the means of the two countries concerned. The idea of a common heritage--and of a common responsibility to safeguard it--took shape. On 8 March 1960, Mr. Rene Maheu, the Director-General of Unesco, launched an international appeal and some $30 million were eventually collected to save the Nubian monuments.

Around this time more and more voices were being raised in defence of the environment and for the protection of natural sites. This movement, which has grown constantly since then, has fostered an awareness of the need to respect the riches of nature which are indissociable from the past and future of humanity.

The World Heritage Convention is a result of the meeting of these two trends. By affirming that the works of man and the works of nature belong to a single heritage, the Convention was a profoundly original document when it was adopted by Unesco's General Conference in 1972.

An inventory

of the world heritage

The idea was to identify the cultural and natural properties within each country whose protection would be a matter of concern to the international community as a whole. The text of the Convention describes these treasures as properties of outstanding universal value from the point of view of art or history, science or natural beauty.

States parties to the Convention draw up an inventory of properties which they consider to fall within these categories and then nominate them for inclusion on the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Committee, an intergovernmental committee comprising representatives of twenty-one states parties to the Convention elected on a rota basis, studies these nominations in the light of detailed reports prepared by two non-governmental organizations, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The number of dossiers studied each year is considerable, but only a handful of properties are inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The List currently comprises 322 properties located in 69 countries. It is an attempt to create a world inventory which will be as comprehensive, representative and coherent as possible.

The criteria for selection

The cultural monuments and sites chosen should:

* constitute a unique achievement (the Fort and Shalamar Gardens, Pakistan; the Chateau of Chambord, France);

* have exercised considerable influence at a certain period (the historic centre of Florence, Italy);

* provide evidence of a civilization which has disappeared (the Royal Palaces of Abomey, Benin; Machu Picchu, Peru);

* illustrate a significant historical period (Abu Mena, Egypt; the historic centre of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil);

* constitute an outstanding example of a traditional way of life (the M'Zab Valley, Algeria; the village of Holloko, Hungary);

* be associated with ideas or beliefs of universal significance (the sacred city of Kandy, Sri Lanka; Independence Hall, United States).

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