40 years UNESCO World Heritage Convention (Full Article)

In 2012 the UNESCO World Heritage Convention celebrates its 40th Anniversary. Here a reminder of how it all began and some of the purposes and philosophies behind the Convention and the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Constitution of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was established in the wake of the Second World War in London on the 16th November 1945 with the purpose  ‘…to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture….’ (UNESCO, 1945).

UNESCO’s World Heritage programme began to take form in the 1960’s. As it is often the case, sometimes real threats are necessary to open our eyes.  Likewise, it was in 1959 that the governments of Egypt and Sudan finally realised that without international assistance, the great monuments in Nubia and Philae could not be rescued from permanent loss by inundation, as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. They eventually turned to UNESCO for help and consequently on 8 March 1960 UNESCO’s first campaign to save our common heritage was launched (UNESCO, 1982: 57).

The campaign sparked the initiatives for developing the concept of a World Heritage Convention. The White House Conference on International Co-operation in the USA in 1965 proposed an idea for a ‘world heritage trust’ (Slatyer, 1984: 8) and after the UNESCO General Conference in 1970, first drafts for a convention were prepared by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and UNESCO. Ultimately, the Convention was adopted in 1972 (UNESCO, 1972).

The ‘Convention for the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage’ was adopted at the UNESCO General Conference on the 16th November 1972. It acknowledges that world heritage should not only be protected for our own present well being, but for the benefit of future generations as well. Its philosophy that it is not just everyone’s right to enjoy the heritage, but even more a common duty and responsibility to protect it, is a major achievement. The World Heritage Committee is the main body in charge of the implementation of the Convention. The ‘Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention’ are the most important working tools for the World Heritage Committee and States Parties. The first version of the Guidelines was elaborated in 1977 and has been revised and edited several times.

By signing the Convention countries agree to co-operate in the protection of the heritage and to conserve the sites located within their borders. They declare as well that these sites belong to the whole of mankind. Some heritage sites are of outstanding universal value to humanity and can be seen as ‘the best possible examples’ (anon. 2000b). UNESCO encourages countries to sign the Convention and to nominate such sites for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

The USA was the first country to sign the Convention on 7 November 1973. To date 161 countries have ratified or accepted the Convention. The first World Heritage Committee was elected in 1976.  The Committee’s main activities concern the World Heritage List, the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger and the World Heritage Fund. The Operational Guidelines were created as a working tool for the implementation of the Convention.

In evaluating the nominated properties for inclusion on the World Heritage List the Committee is assisted by three advisory bodies. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) prepares recommendations for the evaluation of natural properties, while the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) evaluates cultural properties. The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) assists in restoration projects and training in the field of cultural properties.

In 1978, UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention became operational with the inscription of the first twelve properties on the World Heritage List, after which the Convention became a valuable and popular instrument in the protection of the cultural and natural heritage. There is still doubt about its legal strength and its universal value remains questionable.

After forty years 189 States Parties have adhered to the Convention (UNESCO, 2012a). In comparison, there are currently 192 official member states to the United Nations (2012). Depending on which count you accept, there are 196 countries in the world (countries such as Palestine, Western Sahara, Kosovo or Taiwan still cause international disputes over whether they should be recognised as independent countries). As of the 2nd of July 2012 there were 961 properties on the List. The 36th session of the World Heritage Committee
 was held in Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation, from 24 June to 6 July 2012. On the 4oth Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention the Committee added twenty-six new properties to the World Heritage List. The List now includes 745 cultural, 187 natural and 29 mixed properties, across 157 State Parties (UNESCO, 2012b).

When we take today a look at the World Heritage List it can still be said that these properties are not yet fully representative of the ‘best possible examples’. UNESCO acknowledges that there is still work to do and since 1994, has launched the Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced and Credible World Heritage List (UNESCO, 2012c). The strategy has as its objective ‘…to broaden the definition of World Heritage to better reflect the full spectrum of our world’s cultural and natural treasures…’ (UNESCO, 2012c).


As a result new categories for World Heritage properties have been created. The annual new entries to the List reflect this and we have seen for instance properties being put forward in categories such as cultural landscapes, itineraries, coastal-marine and small-island sites, deserts and industrial heritage.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage LogoWithin the context of representing the full spectrum of heritage, UNESCO also developed a stronger emphasis on intangible cultural heritage, and programmes that are seperate from the UNESCO World Heritage List. Under the Intangible Cultural Heritage programme by UNESCO, they compile the ‘The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ and ‘The Register of best safeguarding practices’. There is also a ‘List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding’. The intangible cultural heritage programme recognises for instance ‘oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’ (UNESCO, 2014) expressions, knowledge skills, craftsmanship and practices. An extensive variety of expressions are meant by this, amongst which rituals, festive events, oral traditions or performing arts (UNESCO, 2012d).

UNESCO Memory of the World

Closely linked to this is also the UNESCO project around the Memory of the World that was launched in 1992 and which lists documentary heritage (UNESCO, 2012e).

When a property gets listed under the World Heritage List, this however does not always guarantee that the sites will be satisfactorily safeguarded. While the Convention is often described as one of the most universal international legal instruments for the protection of cultural heritage, it is nevertheless also at times described as an instrument without ‘teeth’ (Westrik, 1998: 47). To address some of these issues UNESCO has also started to compile a List of World Heritage in Danger. In 2012 thirty-eight properties were included on this list (UNESCO, 2012f).

It can be said that the World Heritage Convention and the World Heritage List have been hugely successful and influential. Heritage protection, conservation and awareness about our natural and cultural roots have made much progress over these past forty years.  Most importantly, the activities by UNESCO continue to contribute towards ‘building Peace in the minds of men and women’ peace and collaboration among nations More importantly, the activities by UNESCO continue to contribute towards ‘building Peace in the minds of men and women’ peace and collaboration among nations (UNESCO, 2012h).

Text and Photographs by Jan Haenraets

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

Links and References

(Links to the Internet pages were accessed on 2 July 2012)

Slatyer, R. (1984).  ‘The origin and development of the World Heritage Convention’, Monumentum, The international Journal of Architectural Conservation, Special Issue 1984: 3-1.

UNESCO (1972). Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Adopted by the General Conference at its seventeenth session, Paris, 16 November 1972. UNESCO (Paris). (For the Convention’s full text, see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/conventiontext.)

UNESCO (1982). Save our common Heritage, UNESCO (Paris).

UNESCO (2012a). ‘State Parties: Ratification Status’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties.

UNESCO (2012b). ‘World Heritage List’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list.

UNESCO (2012c). ‘Global Strategy’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/globalstrategy.

UNESCO (2012d). ‘Glossary: Intangible Heritage’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/glossary/.

UNESCO (2012e). ‘Memory of the World’, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/homepage/.

UNESCO (2012f). ‘World Heritage in Danger’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/danger.

UNESCO (2012h). ‘ UNESCO Building Peace in the minds of men and women’, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/.

UNESCO (2014). ‘UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage’, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/home.

United Nations (2012). ‘Members States of the United Nations’, http://www.un.org/en/members/index.shtml.

Westrik, H. (1998). ‘The usefulness of World Heritage Criteria for evaluating cultural landscapes, unpublished MA dissertation, University of York (York).

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