Understanding the World Heritage Convention

Adopted by UNESCO in 1972, and with its full title The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the World Heritage Convention is the official document of the World Heritage Site, and now has one hundred and thirty-one signatory States. Only countries belonging to UNESCO, or invited by UNESCO, can take part.

This global instrument has managed to put in place an inventory, a list, of properties of universal value, requiring the most absolute protection. Through judicial, administrative and financial cooperation, the concept of world heritage is highlighted, and transcends all borders, both political and geographical.

Necessary cooperation between national and international legislation

It is therefore a cooperation between national and international legislation that must be made in order to ensure effective protection of the environment. The Member States, by signing the World Heritage Convention, therefore agree to use all their resources but also to request international assistance if necessary in order to adopt an internal policy in line with the main lines of the Convention, to set up the measures, develop studies, research, take the necessary measures, and set up national and regional training and research centers, as required in the text.

Because they alone, when reading the lines, have a so-called international responsibility. They therefore have an obligation of authenticity, management, education and protection, which, even if it can be delegated to the local level, remains at the international level a governmental obligation, hence the need for internal legislation.

However, this is still very complicated to set up in the measure or on all of the signatory countries, only one of them, Australia, has really set up internal rules of law, framed, and defining the powers and responsibilities of the State in its relation to the World Heritage Convention. The United States of America, meanwhile, has clarified certain points of law on the Convention, but this is still unclear.

With regard to management responsibilities, the principle is simple: the sites and properties selected must be chosen with care, and, subsequently, the States in question must take the appropriate measures to protect and conserve the cultural heritage within of its own territory. These measures must be taken with respect for authenticity both in design, in materials, and in the implementation of working conditions. Each State remains free to implement these measures, in accordance with its internal legislation.

A necessary cooperation between safeguarding tourism and respecting the World Heritage Convention

This is the main issue faced by the signatory States: how to combine one of the main sources of income of a country and respect for the main lines of the World Heritage Convention? Because most of the sites listed in the World Heritage List remain at the same time tourist sites. It is therefore important for all Member States to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is implemented to protect them: because reducing tourism would in a way amount to removing part of the liquidity which potentially could allow the implementation of these measures.

Caught in a vicious circle, the State must adapt. Thus, in addition to the Convention, another document, called Operational Guidelines, recently reviewed in 1992, determines the process to be implemented in order to determine whether or not a site enters the Word Heritage List or not. Once this site enters the list, no measure is imposed on the management and authenticity of the site. However, any measure that would have a negative effect on the site (such as mass tourism, poorly controlled, exposing the site to progressive destruction) is likely to lead to its exit from classification by UNESCO or even to international action against the state in question. Once the terms of the World Heritage Convention have been accepted, they must be respected.

The World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Center: two major players

The World Heritage Committee is made up of twenty-one designated signatory nations. Elections take place every two years. The World Heritage Center, meanwhile, was established in 1992, well after the Convention was put in place, and its main mission is to encourage non-signatory States to join the Convention, but also to assist States in the establishment of institutions and competent personnel for management the protection and restoration of sites designated in the World Heritage List.

The World Heritage Committee selects the sites to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, defines the use of the World Heritage Fund and allocates financial assistance upon requests from States Parties. Deliberations of the World Heritage Committee are aided by three advisory bodies, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).

The World Heritage List

Through the signature, each country therefore undertakes to conserve the cultural and natural sites which it shelters and which are considered by the Convention to be of exceptional and universal value. In exchange, the international community jointly helps to preserve them. The properties belonging to this category or not are determined by the World Heritage Committee. While the first eight sites were registered in 1978, more than forty years later, today, nearly three hundred and sixty sites from eighty-three different countries are listed.

This committee also has the mission of preparing and publishing the list of so-called endangered properties, threatened either by destruction, deterioration or abandonment, whether by urban projects, the development of tourism, a change of owner, or armed conflicts or natural disasters. With each new entry in the list, a publication must be made immediately.

The World Heritage Fund

Established by the World Heritage Convention, this fund is financed by the joint contribution of Member States but also through private organizations and committed individuals. It is used for the implementation of measures whose main objective is the protection of sites classified by the World Heritage Committee. Member States can indeed request international assistance, whether for studies, expert opinions, the employment of technicians or specialised employees or even equipment. Long-term loans or grants may also be considered in some cases.

This article was written by Yanis Saint-Julien (Paris-Saclay).