Katie Cammell: The Politicization of Heritage

Just a few days ago, a pretty damning article was published by The Globalist which condemned the increasing politicization of the World Heritage Committee and the detrimental impact that this has had on the integrity and credibility of the UNESCO World Heritage List. Interestingly, this article was co-authored by the Secretary General of the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO, Mats Djurberg, and the President of the Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO, Tora Aasland. The article echoes the sentiment of an article published in 2010 by The Economist, which criticised the infiltration of politics into the decision-making processes of the Committee.  Clearly, this has been a concern for several years. As per my observations of the 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee in Manama, Bahrain, this situation has not improved and may, in fact, be deteriorating.

How Does the Committee Operate?

I believe it will be useful for those without prior knowledge to preface a critical analysis of the effectiveness of the Committee with a brief discussion of the operational guidelines under which they operate.  The World Heritage Committee consists of 21 of the States Parties to the Convention elected by their General Assembly.  Their responsibility is to affirm the inscription of new nominations, assess the state of conservation of inscribed properties, and decide whether a site should be included on the List of World Heritage in Danger or deleted from the World Heritage List.  In theory, their decisions are based on the recommendations made by the Advisory Bodies (ICOMOS, IUCN, and ICCROM), who are qualified experts that prepare an objective, scientific, and professional assessment of the proposed sites and threats to their outstanding universal value as per the criteria for selection. Using the expert advice of the Advisory Bodies as the foundation for the decision-making process should ideally mean that the decisions made by the Committee are also fair, impartial, and in accordance with the values and spirit of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage on which the Committee is based. 

However, the reality is entirely different. The article from The Globalist reported that the Committee ruled against the advice of the Advisory Bodies in nearly 90% of all cases when it met for its 41st session in Krakow last year.  This is an alarming statistic which undermines the legitimacy of not just the UNESCO World Heritage List, but the entire Committee itself. What makes it so troubling is that the Committee purports to represent the universal heritage of humanity – and if the decisions to inscribe are not impartial, and are in fact influenced by political pressures, then whose heritage are we prioritising and celebrating? And, perhaps more importantly, who is being excluded?

Case Study: Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

The proposed inscription of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal onto the List of World Heritage in Danger was a very contentious issue at the conference this year.  A severe earthquake struck the city of Kathmandu in April 2015, killing around 9,000 people, injuring many thousands more, and either damaging or destroying more than 600,000 structures in Kathmandu and other nearby towns.  The series of aftershocks which occurred were equally devastating, with some 2.8 million people overall displaced by the earthquakes.  According to the initial assessments undertaken by UNESCO, various monuments and sites within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property suffered significant damage, as did several other cultural and natural heritage sites located in the area. In particular, Durbar Squares of Patan, Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu) and Bhaktapur were almost completely destroyed.  In the report State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List that was prepared for the 42nd session, the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies commended the state of Nepal for its commitment to recovering the site.  However, they noted that the scale of destruction went far beyond the capacity and resources of the Department of Archaeology of Nepal, who were not able to proceed in the recovery process at the adequate scale that is necessary to deal with the major challenges currently facing the area.  Moreover, they argued that the reconstruction activities which had been undertaken did not respect or follow local practices or traditional structures or materials, and were thus adversely impacting the outstanding universal value of the property. As such, the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies:

“…strongly recommended that the Committee consider inscribing the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger, in order to ensure that immediate measures can be taken to focus recovery on projects that sustain the attributes of OUV, particularly the distinctive building structures and materials, in order to avoid reconstruction and conservation that is problematic and damaging to authenticity.”

I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like pretty straightforward advice, and I am inclined to agree considering the weight of evidence provided to support this recommendation in the extremely detailed and thorough report on the joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS/ICCROM Reactive Monitoring mission to the Kathmandu Valley published in March 2017. You can probably tell from my sarcasm that after much deliberation, the Committee decided not to inscribe the property onto the List of World Heritage in Danger.

So, once again we have an example of the Committee going against the recommendations made by the expert Advisory Bodies. In order to understand what motivated this decision, it is necessary to first ask two questions: what does it mean to be inscribed onto the List of World Heritage in Danger? And why may state parties wish to avoid this?

The List of World Heritage in Danger

By inscribing a property onto the List of World Heritage in Danger, the Committee is essentially drawing international attention to a site by declaring its outstanding universal value to be under significant threat. In so doing, it can unite the international community to immediately provide both financial and expert technical support to the state that is the custodian of the property in order to preserve and, if necessary, restore it. Moreover, inscribing a property to the List of World Heritage in Danger provides the World Heritage Committee with the ability to immediately distribute support from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered site. However, inscription onto the List of World Heritage in Danger is often seen by State Parties as a punitive measure that brings dishonour to the state in which the property is located.  As such, in the case of Kathmandu Valley, many advocated for more time be allocated for the State Party of Nepal to conduct restorative efforts in order to avoid punishing the state.  Moreover, various State Parties, including Tanzania and Brazil, noted that there are numerous sites which have been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger for longer than ten years, thus indicating that the List is not an effective means of addressing the threats posed to endangered sites.  Although the Advisory Bodies urged the State Parties to use the case of Kathmandu Valley as an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of danger listing and challenge the negative connotations associated with the List of World Heritage in Danger, in the end the State Parties decided to give Nepal more time and revisit the issue in a later session.

Although we may never know what motivated the members of the Committee to vote against inscribing Kathmandu Valley onto the List of World Heritage in Danger - or any of its decisions which ignored the advice of the Advisory Bodies, for that matter – one thing is clear.  The people of Kathmandu, those who have suffered devastating loss and are struggling to rebuild their lives and their heritage, are not the focus of the international community. According to the List of World Heritage in Danger, the maritime mercantile city of Liverpool in the United Kingdom is more deserving of the attention and resources of the international community. UNESCO World Heritage Sites will no doubt continue to be popular tourist destinations for those who subscribe to the popular envisaging of the World Heritage List as being representative of the most outstanding and significant heritage sites in human history.  However, for me this list no longer has any value.  For me, it represents just another forum where savvy politicians manoeuvre their way into positions of power at the expense of the already marginalised local communities that often surround these sites.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.