Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the World Heritage Convention:
What is the World Heritage Convention?
The World Heritage Convention is an international treaty between member states of the United Nations, which sets out to ensure that the world’s most precious places of cultural and natural heritage are protectedor the benefit of all humanity. These include such cultural icons as the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picu, as well as the world’s most special national parks and wilderness areas – places like Serengeti, Yellowstone and Mount Everest.
How does it work?
The Convention operates under UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), and is governed by an international committee of 21 State Parties. The committee is responsible for inscribing places of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ on the prestigious world heritage list, and helping coordinate international cooperation for their protection and management. The committee is supported by a secretariat (the World Heritage Centre) in Paris and three Advisory Bodies – IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties) and ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites).
How many world heritage sites are there?
As at April 2020 there are 1121 ‘properties’ on the world heritage list, of which 869 (78%) are included on the basis of their cultural importance, 213 (19%) are included for their natural values and 39 (3%) are mixed sites which satisfy both cultural and natural criteria.
How are world heritage sites selected?
To qualify for world heritage listing a site must be of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) and satisfy (a) at least one of ten specific criteria (see below) as well as (b) conditions of ‘integrity’ (in the case of natural sites) or ‘authenticity’ (in the case of cultural sites). Sites are nominated by the State Party concerned and evaluated by one (or more) of the international Advisory Bodies before being considered by the Committee.
An important part of the process carried out by the Advisory Bodies is to carry out a comparative analysis to determine whether a nominated site is really as ‘universally outstanding’ as its proponents believe. A detailed procedure for nominations and other aspects of implementation is set out in the Convention’s ‘Operational Guidelines’.
What are the specific criteria under which natural sites may qualify?
As far as natural sites are concerned, a property may be considered to have Outstanding Universal Value if it satisfies one or more of the following criteria:
Criterion (vii). Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.
Criterion (viii). Be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.
Criterion (ix). Be outstanding examples of significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.
Criterion (x). Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of Outstanding Universal Value from the point of view of science or conservation.
Surely there are other places that are even more special, but they are not on the world heritage list?
Yes, the list is incomplete, and additions are made every year. State Parties maintain a ‘tentative list’ of sites they are considering for possible nomination (see UNESCO website for details), and scientific exploration is still ‘discovering’ new places that may qualify for world heritage status. The world heritage movement is a work in progress.
Do sites ever get struck off the list?
Rarely, but it has happened. If a site is threatened and degraded – as a result of war, changing land use patterns or simply a failure of management – the first course of action is for the committee to place the site on the List of World Heritage In Danger. This brings international attention to the problems, and helps garner support towards their resolution. Sites are rarely removed from the world heritage list – although a precedent was set in 2007 with the removal of the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, which had been reduced in size and irreparably degraded.
What does the Convention mean for the State Parties?
State Parties gain international recognition and kudos through the awareness gained from world heritage listing of their sites. This in turn provides direct economic benefits – by attracting tourists, and by fostering international cooperation in site management and support from donors.
Does it really make a difference?
Not always, but it can. There are several ways that world heritage listing benefits a site. Not only does it attract paying visitors and potential donors, but it also provides unequalled recognition for the management authority, local communities and others involved. By placing the site in the international spotlight, it also creates unprecedented ‘political’ pressure on management authorities and State Parties to put long-term conservation goals above possible short-term economic gain. This can be especially important where sites may otherwise be subjected to activities such as mining, water abstraction, road construction or hotel development in sensitive places.