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Paris, Banks of the Seine

The establishment of UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) came into force in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II. A specialised agency of the United Nations, it was established to promote peace between nations. Today it focuses on international cooperation to eradicate poverty, and promote education and inter-cultural dialogue.

UNESCO Heritage Conventions

Since it came into force, UNESCO has adopted six conventions dealing with the cultural and natural heritage:

  • Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention (Hague Convention, 1954) 
  • Convention on Means of Prohibiting and Preveting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Propert (1970)
  • Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Wildfowl Habitats (Ramsar, 1971)
  • Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention, 1972)
  • Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001)
  • Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2001)

The most successful of these is the World Heritage Convention with an almost universally accepted set of principles. The World Heritage Convention has been signed up to, or ratified, by 193 countries.

World Heritage Convention

The World Heritage Convention defines the kind of natural or cultural sites which can be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List. These sites are judged to be of Outstanding Universal Value to humanity. The Convention sets out the duties of countries or States Parties in identifying potential sites and their role in protecting and preserving them. The loss of such sites would be irreplacable. The Convention describes the function of the World Heritage Committee, how its members are elected and their terms of office. It also explains how the World Heritage Fund is to be used and managed and under what conditions international financial assistance may be provided.

International Responsibility

The World Heritage Convention recognises that the primary responsibility for the care and conservation of the World Heritage rests with both individual countries and the international community as a whole. It stipulates the obligation of States Parties to report regularly to the World Heritage Committee on the state of conservation of their World Heritage Sites. By signing the World Heritage Convention each country pledges to conserve not only the World Heritage Sites situated on its territory, but also to protect its national heritage.

Wadden Sea, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands

Cultural and natural heritage

The most significant feature of the 1972 World Heritage Convention is that it links together in a single document the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties. The Convention recognises the ways in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two.

Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value.

Natural Heritage

Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.

World Heritage Sites can be cultural, natural or “mixed sites” with both cultural and natural significance. 

World Heritage Committee

The operation of the World Heritage Convention is overseen by UNESCO's intergovernmental World Heritage Committee made up of 21 states elected by the 193 States Parties to the Convention for a period of 4-6 years.The 2015 World Heritage Committee Meeting took place in Bonn, Germany.The UK was a member of the World Heritage Committee from 2001-2005.

At its annual meeting, the World Heritage Committee:

  • decides which nominated sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage list
  • monitors how well sites on the World Heritage List are conserved and can intervene with individual governments if they consider there are potential threats to Outstanding Universal Value
  • decides in cases of urgent need which sites on the List should be placed on a List of World Heritage in Danger
  • distributes money from the World Heritage Fund for the protection of sites on the World Heritage List

Operational Guidelines

The framework and details for implementing the World Heritage Convention are set out in Operational Guidelines prepared by the World Heritage Comittee. The Guidelines were first written in 1977 and are regularly updated. The latest iteration was published in 2015. The Guildelines set out criteria for:

  • Inscription of sites onto the List of World Heritage Sites
  • Principles for monitoring and reporting on sites
  • Criteria and procedures for the List of World Heritage in Danger
  • Procedures for international assistance to sites in need
  • Procedures for accepting contributions to the World Heritage Fund
  • Balancing the World Heritage List
  • Procedural matters such as use of the World Heritage Emblem and Committee arrangements

Advisory Bodies

Three international non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations are named in the Convention to advise the World Heritage Committee:

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an international, non-governmental organization that provides the World Heritage Committee with technical evaluations of natural heritage properties and, through its worldwide network of specialists, reports on the state of conservation of listed properties. With more than 1000 members, IUCN was established in 1948 and is located in Gland, Switzerland.
 
The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) provides the World Heritage Committee with evaluations of cultural and mixed properties proposed for inscription on the World Heritage List. It is an international, non-governmental organization founded in 1965, with an international secretariat in Paris.
  
The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) is an intergovernmental body which provides expert advice on how to conserve listed properties, as well as training in restoration techniques. ICCROM was set up in 1956 and is located in Rome.

World Heritage Centre

The day-to-day management of the Convention and support to the World Heritage Committee is undertaken by its Secreariat, the World Heritage Centre, based in Paris.

The Centre organizes the annual sessions of the World Heritage Committee and its Bureau, provides advice to States Parties in the preparation of site nominations, organizes international assistance from the World Heritage Fund upon request, and coordinates both the reporting on the condition of sites and the emergency action undertaken when a site is threatened.

The Centre also organizes technical seminars and workshops, updates the World Heritage List and database, develops teaching materials to raise awareness among young people of the need for heritage preservation, and keeps the public informed of World Heritage issues.

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