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INSIGHT: Unesco plans review of world heritage list


In Summary

  • What happened in Syria and Iraq as well as in Mali and Afghanistan were so shocking that the process of preparing Unesco’s new list has become of great political importance

Paris. UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) will gather in Istanbul tomorrow to review candidates to join its prestigious World Heritage List, ranging from 350-million-year old fossils to works by Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

After the June 28 attack on Istanbul’s airport that claimed 45 lives, security has been stepped up for the 11-day World Heritage Committee meeting - the panel’s 40th.

“What happened in Syria and Iraq as well as in Mali and Afghanistan were so shocking that the process of preparing Unesco’s new list has become of great political importance,” said the body’s director general, Irina Bokova.

Earlier this year IS blew up the ancient Nabu temple in Iraq. In 2012, a Malian jihadist blew up nine mausoleums and part of Timbuktu’s famous Sidi Yahia mosque. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Taliban destroyed the giant Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

Interest in threats to heritage has “grown tremendously in recent years because of these conflicts” but also new threats linked to climate change or urbanisation, she told AFP.

“Globalisation and connectivity have also seen the rise of a new spirit, a wish to present oneself to the world through one’s culture,” Bukova said. “Inscription on the World Heritage list is glorious, countries are proud.”

Three modern architects

This year 29 dossiers are being considered by the World Heritage Committee, made up of 21 countries serving a six-year term.

A dossier for the work of architect Le Corbusier, after failed attempts in 2009 and 2011, has been revamped and comes with high marks from a committee of experts who evaluate the submissions.

It lists 17 sites across seven countries - France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Argentina, Japan and India - to show the global reach of the work of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier.

The creations show the contributions of Le Corbusier to the Modern Movement that emerged after World War I with an emphasis on functionality, bold lines and new materials such as concrete, iron and glass. Another architect in the same movement is also under consideration for a World Heritage nod, Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, who laid out the country’s capital Brasilia.

Brazil’s dossier wants Niemeyer’s modern ensemble of Pampulha, a leisure centre built in 1940 around an artificial lake at Belo Horizonte, to be inscribed on the prestigious list.

In the same vein, the United States is promoting the works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but the experts’ assessment was not encouraging.


Other dossiers reach far back in time, one to Canada’s Mistaken Point reserve with its 560 million-year-old fossils. Cave art dating from the 5th century BC in Zuojiang Huashan in China, the dolmens of Antequera in Spain and Gibraltar’s Neanderthal grottoes are also in contention.

Among natural sites under consideration are Iran’s Loot Desert and the Revillagigedo archipelago in Mexico. The World Heritage process has often caused diplomatic friction, and this year is no exception.

Thailand has proposed its Kaeng Krachan forests for listing as a cultural site, angering neighbouring Myanmar, which fired off a letter to Unesco stating that 34 per cent of the site is in its territory.

For its part Britain annoyed Spain by proposing the Gibraltar grottoes, and Turkey has a dossier promoting the ancient ghost city of Ani, once the capital of neighbouring Armenia.

World heritage list today

The World Heritage List today has 1,031 sites in more than 163 countries, including SA, which has a total of eight. Apart from the prestige it accords, it can be a boost to tourism as well as a means for poorer countries to receive financial aid to preserve their sites.

The Heritage Committee will also review the status of 48 sites currently listed as “in danger”.

Seven more sites have been proposed to be added to this list, including the Kathmandu valley, which suffered a devastating earthquake last year, reports AFP.

Meanwhile, the UN News Centre reports that two United Nations agencies have signed an agreement to protect cultural and natural heritage sites by using the latest geo-spatial technologies, including a satellite imaging system.

Strategic partnership

The strategic partnership between Unesco and the Operational Satellite Applications Programme (Unosat) under the UN Institute for Training and Research (Unitar) will enable their collaboration during conflict situations and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Unosat is a technology-intensive programme delivering imagery analysis and satellite solutions to relief and development organisations within and outside the UN system. Satellite imagery is often the only source of objective information for areas affected by conflict or by natural disasters.

“Unosat and Unesco have complementary capacities that can considerably enhance Unesco’s ability to protect heritage in emergency situations,” said Unesco assistant director-general for Culture, Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán, referring to ongoing cooperation to document the state of heritage sites in Iraq and other conflict-affected countries.

“Unosat’s track record of innovative solutions now has a significant impact on the way the UN operates,” said Unosat’s manager, Einar Bjorgo. “While it is fascinating to note how new technologies are applied to protect ancient cultural heritage, our partnership with Unesco helps us take specific action on the ground.”

Prevention and capacity development

The entities will share their respective expertise, and collaborate on prevention and capacity development. This helps the international community to understand the situation on the ground and plan emergency measures. For example, a recently-published report on cultural heritage sites in Syria by Unitar-Unosat, revealed the extent of damage to cultural heritage, confirming information obtained through unofficial sources.

Geo-spatial technologies

Other geo-spatial technologies that may be harnessed include the use of crowd-sourcing app UN-ASIGN, successfully applied following the recent Nepal earthquake, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) both for general recording purposes and for detailed damage assessments of buildings and other infrastructure. The entire range of geo-spatial information gathering tools is combined using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and advanced web-mapping solutions.

Unesco and Unitar-Unosat will jointly explore new and innovative solutions that can further contribute to improved management and protection of cultural heritage sites.

Unesco in its press release states that experts from nearly 40 countries, including 12 outside Africa, gathered in Arusha (Tanzania) for an international conference “Safeguarding African World Heritage as a Driver of Sustainable Development” co-organised by the Unesco World Heritage Centre, the United Republic of Tanzania and the People’s Republic of China from May 31 to June 3, 2016.

Sustainable development and conservation

In his opening statement, Tanzanian Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa declared: “We strongly believe that a delicate balance between these two precepts (sustainable development and conservation) can and will be achieved through cooperation at all levels”. The representative of Unesco director-general Mechtild Rössler highlighted that “this international conference is a direct response from Unesco’s World Heritage Centre to the need to increase public awareness on the tremendous potential of heritage in general, and more specifically World Heritage, in fostering sustainable development throughout the African continent”.

Discussions that took place during the four-day conference reflected the concern for ‘planet, people, prosperity and peace’, considered of critical importance by the 2030 UN Agenda for sustainable development. Presentations covered pressing contemporary issues such as environmental sustainability, inclusive social and economic development, and fostering peace and security through heritage safeguarding.

On the final day of the conference at the World Heritage site of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the participants adopted a declaration reaffirming the importance of heritage for preserving and promoting culture, and as a driver of sustainable development.

Sustainable solutions

Recognising the need for sustainable solutions to the many challenges facing Africa, including climate change, natural and human-made disasters, populations growth, rapid urbanisation, destruction of heritage and environmental degradation, the declaration calls on African nations to develop and implement policies that promote heritage, prevent conflicts and restore peace and security, promote social cohesion and involve local communities, particularly women and youth.

Development projects

Moreover, it appeals to international finance institutions, industry, the private sector, and multi and bilateral partners to undertake development projects with innovative solutions, and requests support from the World Heritage Committee, States Parties and civil society. The declaration also refers explicitly to the 2014 Social Responsibility Declaration by Chinese Enterprises in Africa, which invites Chinese enterprises in Africa to respect culture and customs and protect the local environment and natural resources

“This is an unprecedented step forward for the safeguarding of African World Heritage,” declared Edmond Moukala, Chief of the Africa Unit of the Unesco World Heritage Centre. “This landmark declaration encompasses the full range of stakeholders - from policy makers to civil society - and will enable us to unite our efforts and make tangible changes to the ways we protect our sites, with a vision towards the future.”

The declaration will be submitted to the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention, Unesco, development partners, and representatives of industry, civil society and local communities.

Source: INSIGHT: Unesco plans review of world heritage list

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