What Is the World Heritage?

UNESCO Courier, September 1997 | Go to article overview

What Is the World Heritage?


An international treaty

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

The idea of creating an international movement for protecting sites in other countries emerged after World War I, but the landmark event in arousing international concern was the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would have flooded the valley containing the Abu Simbel temples, a treasure of ancient Egyptian civilization. In 1959, after an appeal from the government of Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO decided to launch an international campaign, and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were dismantled, moved to dry ground and reassembled.

The campaign cost about $80 million, half of which was donated by some fifty countries, showing the importance of nations' shared responsibility in conserving outstanding cultural sites. Its success led to other safeguarding campaigns, e.g. for Venice in Italy, Moenjodaro in Pakistan and Borobudur in Indonesia.

Consequently, UNESCO initiated, with the help of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the preparation of a draft convention on the protection of cultural heritage.

The idea of combining the conservation of cultural and natural sites comes from the United States. A White House Conference in Washington D.C., in 1965 called for a "World Heritage Trust" that would stimulate international cooperation to protect "the world's superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry". In 1968 the International Union for conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed similar proposals for its members. These proposals were presented to the United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm (Sweden) in 1972.

Eventually, a single text was agreed upon by all parties concerned. The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972.

Objectives

The term cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value. Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.

UNESCO's World Heritage mission is to:

* encourage countries to sign the 1972 Convention and to ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage;

* encourage States Parties to the Convention to nominate sites within their national territory for inclusion on the World Heritage List;

* encourage States Parties to set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of World Heritage sites;

* help States Parties safeguard World Heritage sites by providing technical assistance and professional training;

* provide emergency assistance for World Heritage sites in immediate danger;

* promote the presentation of cultural and natural heritage;

* encourage international cooperation in conservation of cultural and natural heritage.

A gift from the past to the future

By signing the World Heritage Convention, countries recognize that the sites located on their national territory which have been inscribed on the World Heritage List, without prejudice to national sovereignty or ownership, constitute a world heritage "for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to cooperate."

Without the support of other countries, some sites with recognized cultural or natural value would deteriorate or, worse, disappear, often through lack of funding to preserve them. …

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