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World Heritage Committee Politicisation and "Pacting"

Author Solivagant
#1 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 06:49 | Edited by: Solivagant 
Coincidentally with my comments today about the Arab/Islamic "bloc" operating within the WHC ( ) I have just come across a paper on the very subject of the operation of such blocs and the tendency of the WHC to become more and more "politicised" "States of Conservation: Protection, Politics, and Pacting within UNESCO's World Heritage Committee" by Lynn Meskell., Stanford University

It was written following the 2013 Phnom Penh WHC (the author also attended at Paris and St Petersburg) and contains examples of the issues discussed (or not "discussed"!) at that meeting. As this session was live-cast, those of us who followed it will be able to relate to the issues and may find the author's background insights of particular interest.

A few quotes
a. "my own contribution specifically traces the international political pacting, national economic interests, and voting blocs through which particular states increasingly set the World Heritage agenda and recast UNESCO as an agency for global branding rather than global conservation".
b. WHC "representatives have shifted from being archaeological and environmental experts to almost exclusively state-appointed ambassadors and politicians"
c. "The pretence and performance of the global are actually undercut by intensely statist arrangements and agreements by some nations secured well before the World Heritage Committee meetings each year."
d. "Blocs can be forged on continental, regional, religious, economic, and even former colonial relationships. Political pacting not only serves to ensure inscription for Committee members' own national sites, but also prevents threatened sites from being transferred to the List of World Heritage in Danger"
e. "throughout recent World Heritage Committee meetings, national agendas have eclipsed substantive discussions of the merits of site nominations"
f. "Figure 1 demonstrates, over the past decade there has been an increasing trend toward the divergence between ICOMOS and IUCN recommendations with regard to site nominations and the subsequent Committee decision. Moreover, analysis clearly shows in Figure 2 that divergence is even more marked when the nominating nation is represented on the World Heritage Committee."
g. "Collective decision-making and the overarching responsibility for the conservation of sites, once the remit of national delegates with heritage expertise, have been replaced by excessive backstage lobbying by politicians and the bargaining power of nations with geopolitical alliances based on geography, religion, trade partnerships, or anti-Western sentiment"
h. "One ICOMOS expert confided that because of Committee pushback, they had been advised to soften any negative expert recommendations in the State of Conservation reports. That trend was observed publicly this year by the delegate from Estonia who remarked on the laxity of the expert recommendations for high profile nations like China and Russia."

Site examples used include
a. Syrian WHS - "protected" by Russia
b. Panama Viejo - "protected" by BRICS nations the amusing analysis of the surreal inaccuracy of the discussions will ring true to those who sat through such discussions on the live cast!
c. Solomon islands "protected" by nobody!!

Here is the link to the article -

Author Khuft
#2 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 12:33 
Thx for this!
Indeed, the politisation of the committee has been increasing over time, as we all have noticed, but as the article states - is this really so surprising for a UN agency, where everything is political anyway? But in a way, it has been political for ages; the initial site do not seem to have been vetted much better either (Provins vs. other possible sites such as Troyes; the 700 elements of the Spanish rock art sites...) or were politically influenced by European nations (Spain / France?). It's not really surprising that Emerging nations are now implementing the same tactics that the European ones used in the past.

Two further thoughts in this respect:
- With retrospect, was is really so wise to structure UNESCO conservation efforts with a "Best-of-the-World" list? It seems to me that the WMF's "100 sites in Danger" List is more effective in this respect as it does not mix up conservation efforts with a touristic award...
- Couldn't it be that attitudes to conservation are simply different outside of Europe/North America? I noticed that during trips to Asia - the authenticity of the historical elements, the surroundings (buffer zone) of a site, seem less important than in West. In part, this may be due that some cultures historically focussed on wooden or earthen architecture, which needs to be periodically replaced anyway. Also, emerging nations (but countries like Japan as well) will see little point in reining in their economic development/infrastructure building for things like buffer zones or sight lines - preserving a few buildings may be the most they are willing to commit to conservation.

Author winterkjm
#3 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 14:02 | Edited by: winterkjm 
The common complaint is IUCN and ICOMOS need to be more transparent and have a more diverse group of experts. Perhaps, if this is done more fully, some of the power wielded by "non-expert" world heritage committee members will be lessoned (in an ideal world).

Essentially, this is where the problem is no? The WHC holds too much power, and often does ignore the advisory bodies (sometimes justified, but more times not). Because the WHC wields so much power, it becomes open to politicization and "pacting". If any potential world heritage site had to go through the evaluation process and make it by merit alone, there would be less opportunity for regional blocs to form or back room deals.

Furthermore, the reality of this politicization and its effects are that nominations that are more "national" in scope or clearly not of obvious OUV make it to the WHC, and sometimes are even inscribed. Which results in countries and WHC members that take part in this politicization and pacting as benefiting their respective countries with additional inscriptions, creating a cycle of practices that decrease the UNESCO World Heritage program as a whole, certainly weakening its validity as a conservation body.

Author elsslots
#4 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 15:11 
Panama Viejo - "protected" by BRICS nations

You beat me to this! I had found this report when preparing for my visit to Panama Viejo/Casco Viejo, and wanted to use it for my blog of today (will still do it)

Author Solivagant
#5 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 15:17 | Edited by: Solivagant 
Some of the articles cited by Meskell (above) are themselves also accessible in full on the Web. This one
"UNESCO's World Heritage Convention at 40 - Challenging the Economic and Political Order of International Heritage Conservation"
is also by Meskell and contains a significant amount of material about "pacting" etc which gets recycled in the later article. However, it concentrates on the 2011 St Petersburg WHC (the other one was written after the 2013 one) and contains some nice quotes and observations about that meeting.
"Vinay Sheel Oberoi, the Indian Ambassador to UNESCO, consistently launched the most vocal attacks on ICOMOS throughout the 10-day meeting in Saint Petersburg........As a self-appointed spokesman for the current Committee, he claimed that "ICOMOS doesn't stand for heritage" during debate over Montenegro's site of Kotor. More seriously, during reports on rebel fighting in the Virunga National Park (DRC), he stated that the Advisory Bodies were out of their remit, unqualified to comment, and thus had transcended the boundaries of their assigned task."

"South Africa has maneuvered through the last few sessions of the World Heritage Committee with a palpable degree of duplicity (see Meskell 2011, 2012). UNESCO and its Secretariat find themselves in an impossible situation. Trapped by diplomacy and the principles of cooperation and mutual understanding, they cannot accuse the State Party of being dishonest or disreputable since they too are engaged in the business of UN peacekeeping."

And more!! -

Author winterkjm
#6 | Posted: 18 Jan 2015 17:31 
"On the other hand, state representatives must also counteract the views of powerful countries like Germany that continue to espouse ethnocentric opinions, as demonstrated in the 2012 World Heritage Committee meetings."

Author Khuft
#7 | Posted: 7 Mar 2015 09:34 | Edited by: Khuft 
Given the current destructions in Hatra, Nimrud, and who knows where else in Iraq and Syria, the bickering of the WHC around Panama Viejo and the de-listing of the Dresden Elbe Valley seems quite ludicrous.

Author winterkjm
#8 | Posted: 7 Mar 2015 10:21 
I don't think we should compare development/infastructure pressures in Germany with people determined to erase history using bombs and bulldozers. Stakeholders in Dresden made a controversial choice concerning a bridge. There is no choice for the stakeholder in Iraq and Syria, madmen are destroying whatever they deem most shocking to the wider international community.

Author Khuft
#9 | Posted: 7 Mar 2015 12:59 
The international community is certainly powerless right now. But UNESCO / the WHC does have a choice on what they spend their money on and where they set their priorities and their policies. Is their focus on development pressures in rich countries the right one? Or could more money be spent in poorer ones; in canvassing and surveying sites there; in training locals; in preserving endangered plants and animals; etc. It would not have prevented the rampage we now see in Iraq, but it might just possibly have allowed to gain more knowledge of these sites before they disappeared.

Author Solivagant
#10 | Posted: 28 May 2022 04:45 | Edited by: Solivagant 
Ms/Dr Meskell continues with her "series" of articles on the politicization of the World Heritage Process so I have added this to the topic I raised in 2015 with her article which covered WHC up to 2013.

Her latest one from May 2021 is titled "Power, persuasion and preservation: exacting times in the World Heritage Committee" (I cant find that it has been highlighted on the Forum previously). It contains some of the same points but contains examples through to the WHC of 2019. Some we already knew about but others we perhaps only suspected. Among the "pressured inscriptions" mentioned are Bologna (2021) , Puys (2018), Bolgar (2014), Meiji (2015) and FLW (2019) but there are plenty of other examples regarding the "In Danger List" etc. together with some from earlier years which were not necessarily widely known about. Generally things in this respect seem to have got "worse" in recent years

The article is here on ResearchGate - I think you need to have registered (for free) to download.

Author elsslots
#11 | Posted: 28 May 2022 05:11 
Thanks for sharing, Solivagant!

Quoting a few things from her article:
"Such practices were not necessary in the early years of the Convention when the Athenian Acropolis or Pyramids of Giza were
inscribed without debate"
-> Acropolis wasn't inscribed very early (1987), and also in the early years there were questionable entries (such as Ichkeul or the Madara Rider). I don't think we should romanticize those early years. Little or no proof had to be submitted, there were no comparative analyses.

"In their efforts to persuade, nominating states enlist members of the Committee to become personal guarantors for the value of a site by the sole fact of visitation."
I think this was much more common in the early days.

Overall, the article is mostly a list of incidents (mostly minor) and does not deliver much news for us as observers. There are no solutions proposed to make the whole circus less politicized.

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 World Heritage Committee Politicisation and "Pacting"

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