HomeSpotlightIs UNESCO biased in World Heritage Site selection?

Is UNESCO biased in World Heritage Site selection?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) based in Paris. UNESCO has 193 member states and 11 associate members and pursues its objectives through five major programs: education, natural sciences, social/human sciences, culture and communication/information. The purpose of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention is to protect the global public good of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value for humanity. Though set up with a noble objective, the organisation has often found itself in the midst of controversies and some of the decisions taken by it have often indicated that the organisations operations are subject to bias.

World Heritage properties inscribed by leading states

CountryProperties inscribed
China53
France44
Germany44
Italy54
Spain47

Above is the list of nations with 40 or more inscriptions. India has 37 heritage sites inscribed against its name. There are 26 nations without a single property inscribed on the World Heritage list. Just four European countries, viz., France, Germany, Italy and Spain account for more than 17% of the World Heritage Site list. It may not be coincidence that France, Spain and Italy are among top five world’s most visited countries. One simple question that arises from the above list is that does tourism industry has any say in deciding the properties to be inscribed on World Heritage list? According to a Maharashtra state government official who doesn’t want to be quoted the reason for most of the European heritage sites getting inscribed on the list is the greater awareness about heritage sites among the European countries and their importance is the most in European countries than anywhere else. He may be right to an extent but the circumstantial evidence cannot be brushed aside altogether.

Yes, awareness is the most important factor and that might have come because these European countries very well know the benefits emanating from inscriptions on World Heritage list. For example, India currently has 44 properties on tentative list out of which 2/3rdare submitted five or less than five years ago. On the other hand, Italy has 42 properties included on the tentative list out of which more than 75% were submitted more than 10 years ago. Getting listed on tentative list is the first step in the long and time consuming process of getting inscribed on the World Heritage list. India started taking active interest in its heritage properties and started putting them on world heritage map, more actively, only since last five years.

Some observers have also pointed out that the World Heritage list is subject to politicization as the selection process of heritage sites is increasingly driven by countries’ political influence and national strategic interests. Well known international magazines on more than one occasion have pointed out that World Heritage Committee was prone to succumbing to pressure from member states. Jukka Jokilehto, who was previously active with UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention and also author of book on architectural conservation had observed that since 1993 there have been more than 40 cultural sites inscribed by the World Heritage Committee which have received a negative recommendation from the Advisory Bodies.

Using both nominations and final inscriptions for the period 1978-2008, Bertacchini & Saccone (2012) found that income level and economic power are relevant for the capacity of countries to propose heritage sites in the List. Looking at the list of 26 countries who have failed to make it to World Heritage List so far, the claim has some merit in it. For example, the list consists of such names as Burundi, Comoros, Rwanda and Sierra Leone which are least influential both economically and politically. However, the list also contains names like Kuwait and Brunei which are considered to be rich countries. But these are exceptions and the list is overwhelmed by poor and less influential countries substantiating the allegation made by Bertacchini & Saccone.

Victoria Reyes, Assistant Professor, University of California, Riverside in one of her recent articles has stated “in practice, though, what is considered worthy of World Heritage recognition is not equally distributed across countries. According to my research, UNESCO disproportionately reveres the cultural legacies of former European empires.” Reys may have good reasons to come to this conclusion but in India’s context this argument doesn’t hold much water. Out of 37 Indian sites inscribed in World Heritage list only four sites, namely, Churches and Convents of Goa, Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, the Architectural Work of Le Corbusier and Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai, have Western European architecture influence. Rest all are either Indian classical architectures or Mughal era structures.

Controversy or no controversy, it’s a fact that being on the List is highly desired by many as it may bring prominence and monetary revenue by way of increased visitors/tourists. Despite the fact that inscription does not guarantee greater protection and access to financial resources from UNESCO is very limited, inscription attracts the attention of donors and for-profit firms and countries may market their world heritage sites as tourism destinations. Further, in some cases inscription has become a political tool for nations to bolster their sovereign interests, using global heritage as a pawn in international relations. All these reasons make World Heritage listing the most sought after global heritage recognition for any country. Such position of pre-eminence will always attract controversies and allegations of wrong doings. UNESCO, on the other hand, should be more transparent in its selection process to avoid unnecessary controversies.

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