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
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
"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
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
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. …