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World Heritage Convention Turned 40: Achievements and Prospects for the Future.

April 5, 2013


On the 40th anniversary of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (WHC), marked in 2012, almost all States (190) are parties to it, along with two non-state entities, the Holy See and Palestine respectively. WHC was the first international instrument that articulated natural and cultural heritage protection in the same context, under the pressure of the UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972), which proclaimed the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment that extends over both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made (Stockholm Declaration, par.1).

The Convention marks the evolution of international interest from the notion of cultural property to that of heritage.[1] A concept which transcends state boundaries for the benefit of humanity and future generations. However, this internationalized interest is eventually restricted, since the primacy of state jurisdiction permeates the whole text of the convention. Hence, art. 4 recognizes the primary responsibility of state for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of cultural and natural heritage.

Merging Different Concepts

WHC addresses jointly the protection of natural and cultural heritage, as it has consolidated two distinct drafting initiatives; one within IUCN concerning the Protection of Nature and Natural Resources, and the other under the auspices of UNESCO relating to the protection of groups of monuments, buildings and sites of universal value. Although heritage was perceived as an indivisible concept, its consolidated concept was worked out in practice, given that World Heritage List (WHL) includes 962 properties of outstanding universal value, out of which only 188 are natural sites and 29 are mixed.

At first sight, this imbalance could be attributed to human intervention that distorts the integrity and authenticity of natural sites.[2] However, the underlying reason is the proliferation of treaty regimes governing environmental protection.  More than 100 international and regional, general and special treaties introduce special protective regimes that govern the protection of natural sites. Ramsar List, for instance, under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (1971),[3] enumerates 2106 registered sites.

In an effort to addressing the disparity of the inscribed properties, a Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced and Credible WHL[4] was launched in 1994. In addition, with the adoption of the revised Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the WHC only one set of ten criteria exists[5] in order to enhance human interaction with the environment. Another significant achievement of the Convention is the inclusion of cultural landscapes representing “combined works of nature and of man” designated in Article 1 of the Convention, illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time.[6] This dynamic interpretation of the scope of application expanded the notion of heritage, and ‘opened the way to a more balanced picture of humanity’s heritage’.[7]

“Institutional” Challenges

WHC is more than an international treaty. Aiming at the realization of a system of international co-operation and assistance (art.7), it has now turned into an ‘organization in miniature’.  Thus, an independent institutional framework has been developed within which the World Heritage Committee, an intergovernmental organ of limited representation, is entrusted with executive powers, the General Assembly of state parties is the plenary policy-making organ, while IUCN, ICOMOS, and ICCROM are named as the main advisory bodies (art.8). Further, it has partly[8] retained economic self-efficiency through World Heritage Fund. In 1992, World Heritage Centre was established as the focal point and coordinator within UNESCO for all matters related to World Heritage, whereas it de facto operates as a General Secretariat. To this end, Francesco Francioni, made a clear-cut statement as the Chairperson of the 21st Session of World Heritage Committee, noting:

In point of law, there is no way that the World Heritage Committee may be considered as a “subsidiary body” of the “UNESCO supreme governing body” i.e. the General Conference… Its relation to the General Conference is one of co-operation and co-ordination between institutions of equal standing both based on international treaties of equal hierarchical value.[9]

The implementation of the WHC is mainly conferred upon the WH Committee. The latter is responsible for the WHL, the List of World Heritage in Danger, the definition of world heritage properties as well as the allocation of financial assistance and monitoring. Given its increased role, in conjunction with its limited state representation, shortcomings were identified already in early 90s.

The democratic deficit in participatory mechanisms is apparent since only 80 state parties have been members of the Committee, whilst some of them have monopolized some of the seats for more than 20 years, like France, Australia, Egypt, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Italy.[10] As already cited, Committee’s membership is highly significant because of the extensive powers on heritage protection. Firstly, the Committee formulates and revises the Operational Guidelines that set the selection criteria for the Lists. Therefore, it determines directly and indirectly the evaluation process and the entries in the Lists, while it interprets the ‘outstanding universal value’, this fundamental and rather vague criterion of the Convention.

On this basis, criticism is not unfounded. Indicatively, the List lacks cultural pluralism and denotes a profound Eurocentric monumental concept that favors European nominations, compared to other less materialistic ones. A quick glance at enlisted properties disclose the overrepresentation of western cultural elements such as architectural properties, historic towns, and religious properties, along with the absence of certain cultures or historical periods; f.i. the Near and Middle East the ancient Sumerians, the Bantu States in Central Africa and other indigenous cultures.[11]

The geographical asymmetry is even more problematic. According to data figures, Arab states are the least represented with 73 entries in the List, followed by African region with 86 properties,  Latin America and the Caribbean 128, Asia / Oceania 213 –in which, large parts of Asia and the Pacific, especially the Pacific Islands, are hardly represented-, contrary to Europe and North America where 463 sites are enlisted.[12]

Significant efforts for a representative, balanced and credible list have been made since 1994.  The launch of Global Strategy as revised by the GA Resolutions, Cairns Decision (2000), which limited the number of new nominations to be examined each year,[13] and the Declaration of Budapest (2002),[14] in spite of the progress they made, they were not able to cure the above conceptual and participatory problems.

WHC (In)Action

WHC is generally regarded as a successful system of protection due to its universal acceptance, along with the high number of inscribed properties. On the other hand, the system of protection has frequently revealed its deficiencies in emergency cases.

a. Buddhas of Bamiyan. Afghanistan nominated Monuments of Bamiyan for inscription in World Heritage List in 1987. Following the pre-evaluation by ICOMOS, WHCom endorsed its recommendation and postponed the consideration of the nomination, until Afghanistan defines a buffer zone. 14 years later, in 1997, the Taliban announced the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan as non-Islamic symbols. A few days later, the Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan in UNESCO requested the Director-General of UNESCO to take necessary actions to inscribe it in the List as a matter of urgency. Despite diplomatic efforts at the regional and international levels, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, along with other statues, took place in March 2001. Finally, in 2003, UNESCO provided technical assistance to the national authorities for the completion of the application file, re-examined the nomination and finally inscribed in the List the Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley. However, the Bamiyan story highlights the weakness of WHCom to effectively deal with the ongoing challenges and urgent needs in the name of mere formalism.

b. Temple Preah Vihear. The Temple and the surrounding area lay at the heart of the cross-border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.[15] The Committee registered, upon request of Cambodia, the sacred precinct of the Temple of Preah Vihear in 2008, while, in this case, delimitation of buffer zone and submission of a management plan was allowed at a later stage. Thailand’s opposition that repeatedly expressed complaints and objections in the light of Article 11 § 3 of the Convention, escalated a few days after the registration. Thai military presence in the area increased and cross-border conflicts occurred until July 2011, when the case was brought to ICJ. Given the possible effects of the conflict on the Temple, which is recognized as part of world heritage, the Court ordered provisional measures, and called for immediately withdraw of military personnel in the provisional demilitarized zone.[16] At the same time, the Committee requested the submission of the Management Plan for the inscribed property, which became a new point of controversy, with Thailand going so far as to threaten to withdraw the Convention, which she did[17] during the 36th Session of the Committee. Finally, in October Thailand rescinded and retained its seat in WHCom.

Thailand/Cambodia dispute is a typical example of interstate dispute that illustrates the dynamics and prospects of the convention as a tool for peaceful relations and international cooperation.

c. The Old City of Dubrovnik. Despite its international status, Dubrovnik was bombarded in mid-December 1991, signaling the insufficiency of an early warning system. In the absence of a derogation clause, WHC applies both in peacetime and in case of armed conflict. Further, art. 11(4) refers specifically to the Committee’s competence to inscribe a property in the event of emergency such as the outbreak or the threat of an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the WHCom failed to identify future threats that led to subsequent identification of the damage and the ruins.

d. Current challenges.  Armed conflicts remain one of the major threats to heritage protection. Recent developments in Syria and Mali illustrate WHC weakness to respond promptly in heritage destruction. Aleppo and Timbuktu, both world heritage sites, have been intentionally targeted, while only the latter was inscribed in the List of World Heritage in Danger. But still, heritage protection should not be regarded as a matter of politics; since non compliance with conventional norms is a question of international law, WHC organs should make use of all available tools of international law.

Human Dimension of WHC

The 40th anniversary was dedicated to World Heritage and Sustainable Development, with a particular focus on the Role of Local Communities. The interrelation between WHC and the communities had various implications, as already mentioned in art. 5. On the one hand, the protection and restoration of world heritage monuments such as the Bridge of Mostar, Dubrovnik and the plans for Bamiyan Valley, have positively affected the local populations, while in many cases these initiatives strengthen the reconciliation process between locals. On the other hand, communities were often excluded from this system, due to the exclusive right of the State for nominations.  As a result, not only minority cultures are excluded, but also in various occasions, nominations infringe on indigenous rights.

In this context, the nomination of various sites such as the Tatshenshini-Alsek area in 1994, has been strongly opposed by locals, especially indigenous people, on territorial grounds or claims related to their traditional activities (hunting, fishing).[18]

To this end, prior consultation has proved to be crucial as in the case of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, a nomination on the initiative of local people, that certainly represents a legacy for the future that has to be further advanced. Engaging locals in WHC implementation is a key to successful protection, providing an important dimension in the effective governance of the issues involved. This emerging practice is particularly reflected in the recent periodic report of African states where consultation with local people is encouraged either through traditional leaders or as an open process.

WHC: The Way Forward

Despite shortcomings and the fact that natural heritage has been sidelined WHC became the basic pillar of international cultural heritage protection. And this is a significant achievement, given the limited conventional framework of the latter.

WHC has undoubtedly evolved and adapted to the changing legal and social environment. Evidently, the periodic revision of Operational Guidelines, reactive monitoring, and the new Strategic Action Plan for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention 2012 – 2022,[19] confirm the conceptualization of treaties as ‘living instruments’. To this end, groups (locals, minorities, indigenous etc.) turn to be the driving force for a pluralistic protection of world heritage within states, under the general impact of humanization of international law.

Nevertheless, efforts to enhance institutional effectiveness and efficiency are a prerequisite to advance the governance of world heritage protection. Thus, WHC mechanisms should prove their readiness and willingness to address urgent needs and ensure that another cultural tragedy won’t occur in the near future.


  1. See also FRANCIONI, F. ‘A Dynamic Evolution of the Concept and Scope: From Cultural Property to Cultural Heritage’ in A. A. Yusuf, (Ed.) Normative Action in Education, Science and Culture. Essays in Commemoration of Sixtieth Anniversary of UNESCO, Leiden/Boston, UNESCO & Martinus Nijhoff, 2007.
  2. Cf. IUCN Evaluation Report 2012.
  3. UN Treaty Series No. 14583. As amended by the Paris Protocol, 3 December 1982, and Regina Amendments, 28 May 1987.
  4. Decision 18COM VIII.1-10, Strengthening of the World Heritage Centre in 1994 and its Further Development.
  5. Decision 6 EXT.COM 5.1. For current status see WHC. 12/01, July 2012
  6. Ibid, para. 45.
  7. PRESSOYRE, L., ‘The Past Is Not Just Made of Stone’, UNESCO Courier, December 2000, p.19.
  8. UNESCO supports the protection and conservation of immovable, cultural and natural properties, in particular through the effective implementation of the World Heritage Convention, that incorporates in the approved Programme and Budget of the Organization. 35 C/5 Annex I, p. 282
  9. WHC-97/CONF.208/17, para. XII.11, p. 59-6,
  10. WHC-11/18.GA/INF.3B, p. 11
  11. ICOMOS, ‘The World Heritage List: Filling the Gaps – an Action Plan for the Future. An Analysis’  February 2004, p. 28,
  12. As of 1st March 2013,
  13. WHC-2000/CONF.204/21. See also
  14. Decision 26COM 9
  15. ICJ had ruled that the Temple of Preah Vihear is located on territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia, see Case concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand), Merits, Judgment, ICJ Reports 1962, p. 34
  16. Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand), ICJ, Order of 18 July 2011, (not yet published), at para 69.
  18. AFFOLDER, N., ‘Mining and the World Heritage Convention: Democratic Legitimacy and Treaty Compliance’, (2007), 24 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 35, p. 17
  19. WHC-11/18.GA/11

About the author

Maria Papaioannou

PhD Candidate, Researcher, Chair UNESCO “Human Rights, Democracy and Peace”, Panteion University of Athens