Words and Deeds

By Zouain, Georges | UNESCO Courier, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Words and Deeds


Zouain, Georges, UNESCO Courier


The criteria written into the World Heritage Convention contain some ambiguities

The implementation of the World Heritage Convention is based on the definition of the cultural and natural heritage enshrined in Article 1 of the Convention. This definition is amplified by the criteria set forth in a booklet entitled "Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention".

To some extent the indivisibility of nature makes it easy to choose "natural" sites. "Cultural" sites are another matter. The Convention is open to all the world's cultures and civilizations, and this allows for considerable latitude in the interpretation of the definition and the criteria.

According to the Convention, "the following shall be considered as 'cultural heritage':

* monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

* groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

* sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and of man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological points of view."

The Convention thus takes into consideration a wide range of possible cases, monumental and otherwise, but when it comes down to it, "monumentalism" and "aesthetics" often take precedence over the significance of a given site. As one ethnologist has written, "What justification is there for allowing aesthetic and museological criteria, which are always extraneous, to take precedence over the obvious fact, which can furthermore be verified by looking at the way local societies function on an everyday basis, that a 'nasty' pile of mud coated with dried blood, sticky feathers and broken eggshells often constitutes a 'fetish' more powerful - and doubtless no less rich in spiritual significance - than a superb statue which we regard as 'artistic'?" For whom do we make listings and what criteria do we use?

[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]

An answer to these questions emerges from a statistical reading of requests for inscription on the World Heritage List, and subsequent acceptances and rejections. Rather than strengthening the universality and unity of the world, the current trend tends to magnify a certain division between countries. There are those which can claim to contribute to universality - and the number of their sites included on the List proves it (see Table 1). [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] Others have only a single site on the List, or none at all. There are also countries which are not Parties to the Convention.

Is this breakdown accidental or does it arise from subtle forms of discrimination? …

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