On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of UNESCO’s adoption of the World Heritage Convention, the heritage community should reflect on what it has achieved. When nations around the world adopted the Convention in 1972, it became the certifier of “the wonders of the world.” Today, over one thousand sites in more than 130 countries are inscribed on the World Heritage List. These coveted inscriptions have successfully driven conservation efforts even during the most economically and socially challenging times.
Most of us would agree that the original mission of UNESCO in general and the World Heritage Program, in particular, is one of progress and peace, an upstanding vision, to be sure. Fifty years on, however, national priorities and the needs of local communities have changed, and the Convention must adapt to these new realities. Over time, the program has devolved from an organization with a coherent mindset of mutual understanding to one muddled by the competing interests of its Member State.1 In an outcome that represents the very antithesis of UNESCO’s core mission, the World Heritage Program catalyzes conflict and competition among countries looking to show off a piece of their history as a status symbol on the heralded World Heritage List. As well, one cannot overlook the Western bias, with mostly European nations serving as judges of this competition, resulting in an adversarial and noninclusive environment. The organization must do more to break out of its bureaucratic mindset to address better the current issues affecting and threatening the world’s heritage and to return to its roots of promoting intercultural understanding.
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