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26 August 2017

World Heritage List

Tag(s): Languages & Culture
What do Stonehenge, the Galapagos Islands, the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the Palace of Versailles and the Temple of Angkor have in common? They are all among the 1073 Common Assets of Mankind that UNESCO has inscribed on its World Heritage List.

This list has grown over time so as to reflect the diversity of the planet’s cultural, natural and intangible treasures. It comprises 832 cultural assets, 206 natural assets and 35 mixed assets in 167 Member States. Since March 2012, 193 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage Convention.

I referred to this briefly in my blog ‘I’ve got a little list’ in December, 2012[i] when I said:

I have set one personal ambition that I will never fully achieve but will have lots of fun trying. That is to see all the World Heritage sites as decided by UNESCO.  The World Heritage List includes 962 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value. These include 745 cultural, 188 natural and 29 mixed properties in 157 States Parties. As of September 2012, 190 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage Convention.  When I set this ambition a few years ago there were about 750 World Heritage sites so the Committee is making it very difficult for me to achieve this particular ambition as they ratify sites faster than I can see them. But it should keep my wife and me busy for a few years yet.”

So in less than five years UNESCO has awarded World Heritage status to 111 more assets so as I said my ambition is unachievable as they award this status faster than we can get round them.

Last week my wife and joined a river cruise on the River Rhone through Provence and Burgundy. We saw no less than five World Heritage sites. We started with Arles with its Roman and Romanesque Monuments, the Great Amphitheatre, the Necropolis and the Forum. From there we also visited the magnificent Pont du Gard, Roman aqueduct seen by the Romans themselves as their greatest architectural achievement. We then visited the Historic Centre of Avignon: the Papal Palace with its outstanding architecture and fine collection of frescoes and tapestries; the Episcopal Ensemble and ‘le Pont D’Avignon’. Here we learnt that the words of the song are wrong. The dancing did not take place ‘sur le Pont’ (on the bridge) but ‘sous le Pont’ (under the bridge) as the bridge is too small for dancing in the round and so they danced under it on the island. We then visited The Climats: terroir of Burgundy, passing through villages with magical names like Montrachet and Meursault before touring Beaune which claims to be the wine capital of the world, where of course we had a fine wine tasting in one of the caves in the centre of this wonderful city. Finally we visited the Historic City of Lyons with its Roman theatre, and both a magnificent cathedral and a spectacular Basilique.  Five World Heritage sites in one week can’t be bad.  

It was on the 16th November 1945 that representatives of 37 countries gathered in London to sign the Constitutive Act of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO). This took effect on 4th November, 1946 after ratification by 20 signatory countries. In 1954 The Hague Convention established early protection of cultural assets. In 1960 the proposed rescue of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt stimulated the involvement of UNESCO in the protection of World Heritage. In 1965 the World Heritage Foundation was created. This was followed up in 1972 by the Convention for the Protection of World Heritage, cultural and natural international treaty.  The Convention came into force on 17 December 1975. To date it has been ratified by 193 states parties, including 189 UN member states plus the Cook Islands, the Holy See, Niue, and the Palestinian territories. Only four UN member states have not ratified the Convention: Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia and Tuvalu.

!in 1973 the list of World Heritage Assets was created.  In 1992 the notion of cultural landscape was introduced. In 2003 these arrangements were further strengthened with the convention for the protection of intangible cultural world heritage in a further international treaty.

In the UK we are used to a long tradition of protecting and maintaining our cultural assets with the establishment of charities like The National Trust and public bodies like English Heritage. Other countries have come much later to this concept but it does appear that real progress is being made. We learnt for example at the Pont du Gard that it used to be overrun with campers and stalls while now there is a superb visitor centre and a museum and access is strictly controlled. That does not mean that people cannot enjoy themselves as there were numerous young people canoeing on and swimming in the river below the bridge.

According to the sites ranked by country, Italy is the home to the greatest number of World Heritage sites with 53 sites, followed by China (46), France (43), Germany (42), India (36), Mexico (34), and United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories (31). Other prominent countries are the Russian Federation (28), the USA (24) and Iran (21).

My ambition will be further frustrated by the concept of tentative lists. States parties are encouraged to submit their tentative lists, properties which they consider to be cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List. Out of 193 States Parties to the Convention, 182 have submitted a Tentative List. These Lists comprise a further 1669 sites, a potential increase of 155%!

Just two sites have been delisted: The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman was delisted in 2007 and in 2009 the Dresden Elbe valley in Germany was delisted. However, several sites are deemed to be in danger.  The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action.

Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanisation and unchecked tourist development pose major threats to World Heritage sites. Dangers can be ‘ascertained’ referring to specific and proven imminent threats, or ‘potential’, when a property is faced with threats which could have negative effects on its World Heritage values.

The World Heritage Committee lists 54 properties in danger and not surprisingly they are mainly located in troubled states including Afghanistan,  Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire,  Democratic Republic of the Congo,  Egypt, Iraq,  Jerusalem (site proposed by Jordan), Libya,  Mali, Palestine, Syria (no less than six sites),  Venezuela and Yemen. But rich nations should not be complacent as in the UK Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City , only listed in 2012, is seen as in danger as is the Everglades National Park in the USA, only listed in 2010.

Nevertheless, my wife and I will continue to work our way up and down the list and for my part I think this initiative is one of the better outcomes of the whole United Nations project. 

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