The World Heritage Convention: back on the right track?

12 February 2013 | News story

By Jim Thorsell, IUCN Senior Advisor on World Heritage

Thirty years have passed since I first represented IUCN at the 7th meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Florence in 1983 when the World Heritage Convention was in its formative stages with only 45 natural sites on the list and 78 State parties.

Only a very limited database on protected areas existed, no thematic studies, and no field evaluations were undertaken. It was at the Florence meeting that the first natural site monitoring report was given.

These early years were relatively easy ones. Many of the obvious iconic sites came forward and few major issues had to be dealt with. Even when there were problems, the Committee had a seven-member bureau who acted to tidy up the files and prepare a draft recommendation prior to the full committee meeting.

Over the next decade the Convention greatly extended its reach with major growth in terms of sites inscribed, State parties, funding and staff resources.

Indeed, the 20th anniversary events in 1992 held in Washington and at the World Parks Congress in Caracas were mostly congratulatory and constructive. Key outcomes are outlined in the IUCN publication: World Heritage – 20 years later. These included revision of the criteria for natural properties and a list of conservation improvements in 21 natural sites as a result of monitoring reports.

Then, in 1996 during the 20th meeting of the Committee in Merida, a pivotal change occurred. A very long and divisive debate over one natural site proposal led to a major departure in the way the Committee viewed its procedures and rules as set out in the operational guidelines.

After an acrimonious debate and a vote, the site was duly inscribed. But, as the delegate from Germany then noted, no fewer than six paragraphs in the guidelines were not followed. His statement concluded that by neglecting the guidelines (quote) “…the convention is in danger to become a mere political instrument”. The delegate from the USA continued with an impassioned statement noting (quote): “We tarnished our integrity by not following our own procedures”.

Since this precedent was set, as has been noted by many “heritage watchers”, the Committee has continued to regularly depart from its own rules with the result that its credibility has come under question. For IUCN as one of the advisory bodies, this condition has made its role more difficult and a less collegial spirit prevails. Nevertheless, IUCN remains a strong supporter of the convention as seen by the resolution on strengthening the World Heritage Convention adopted at the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress.

One major reason for IUCN’s continued support has been the impressive record of achievements in conservation of natural properties that World Heritage can be given credit for.

An overview of the effectiveness of the Convention was prepared for the World Parks Congress in 2003 in Durban. The report identified major improvements in a total of 45 cases where World Heritage actions led to averting threats and strengthening site management.

Since the Durban meeting I have also had the opportunity to re-visit a number of natural properties that I evaluated 20 years ago. There have been some sobering disappointments of conditions in several natural sites such as the Galapagos but some very gratifying and impressive achievements were seen in others (Juiahaigou, Huangshan).

In 2004, after 20 years at IUCN I returned to my home in Banff, itself a part of the Canadian Rockies Parks World Heritage property. Having 20 World Heritage Committee meetings behind me, there were certain trends in the direction the Convention was going that concerned me at this time:

The nomination process for natural sites was proceeding apace with many secondary level sites being inscribed. In many cases decisions were made without regard to existing thematic studies, or global strategy or the assessments of natural area experts. The list had morphed from “a select list of the most outstanding places” to an inventory of important heritage sites, some of which, according to many, did not have outstanding universal value.

The Committee meetings were increasingly driven by political considerations with many delegations lacking natural area experts. This, of course, led to some technical evaluations becoming irrelevant and the list itself losing its exclusivity.

The array of threats to natural sites as brought out by a more sophisticated monitoring system had overwhelmed the Committee’s capacity to adequately respond and it was not adequately addressing its conservation responsibilities.

Had World Heritage lost its way?

Well, according to the 2011 evaluation report of UNESCO’s external auditor, it had indeed lost its way. In a comprehensive and sweeping review of the global strategy the auditor produced an incisive set of 26 recommendations which, if acted upon, would “move the Convention from crisis back to success.

As the 2012 General assembly of States parties endorsed the recommendations of the auditor, this bodes well for action to reform the committee.

To conclude, the external auditor’s evaluation has come at a critical time and much rests on what transpires to implement it. The two “take-home” bottom line tasks are to:

Restore and maintain the high standards of procedures and conduct as are expected of such a key conservation convention; and

Recall the original purposes of the Convention to identify and reinforce the effective conservation of the world’s most outstanding heritage sites.


Bengal Tiger being Released into the wild from a boat in the Sundarbans