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Is World Heritage Program becoming ineffective?

Recently, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a presidential decree which in effect turned Hagia Sophia, a 1,500 year building into a mosque. Hagia Sophia is not an ordinary heritage site but UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site. UNESCO had reacted to the change of Hagia Sophia’s status as early as July 2020 and expressed its concern in this regard. But Turkey went ahead with its decision to convert the site into a mosque and UNESCO except expressing concern and sending a mission to Istanbul couldn’t do much. In fact, Hagia Sophia incident is not the first one in UNESCO’s long history of more than five decades but such incidents are aplenty often casting shadow over its ability to protect world monuments.

Destruction of monuments by religious extremists

Mindless destruction of world’s tallest Buddha statues by planting explosives in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan by Taliban commanders in 2001 is still fresh in the minds of heritage lovers. This incident not only showed power deficiency in the world organisation but also its lack of ability to anticipate man made casualties also came into the fore. Destruction of ancient sites took place across Syria and Iraq by ISIS many years after the Bamiyan barbarism and UNESCO once again couldn’t do anything about it even though it might have anticipated such an eventuality much before. UNESCO didn’t show the same degree of alertness and necessity to save these sites which it had showed once when the Egypt government had begun construction on the Aswan High Dam along the Nile River which had the potential to submerge hundreds of archaeological sites in Egypt and Sudan. It’s true that over the years these successes of UNESCO are dwindling, as the organisation is plagued by bureaucratic wrangling and underhanded deals for money and influence between the Committee and the Member States.

The Convention has limitations

The Constitution of UNESCO has certain limitations too. The identification and delineation of World Heritage sites is one of the most important functions of the Convention and the Committee. However, it is the responsibility of Member States to submit properties for consideration. Neither the Committee nor the Member States can, under the Convention, force a State Party to nominate a site, regardless of the need for preservation.

UNESCO ineffective in other cases too

Arguments can also be put forth saying that UNESCO being a rules and procedures led organisation cannot do much against sledgehammer-wielding religious fanatics. But the fact is that the organisation has proved to be spineless in dealing with many white collared civilised crimes by the Western World too.  Some of the studies reveal that North American sites accounted for 57 percent of all forest loss in Natural World Heritage Sites worldwide. Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, for instance, lost 12 percent of its forest cover over roughly the first decade of this century, and Yellowstone National Park lost 6 percent. Unsustainable logging practices cost 5 percent of the forest cover around Russia’s Lake Baikal and 8 percent in Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. These incidences show that UNESCO is ineffective in curbing the ‘gentlemanly’ destruction of natural sites also.

Its armour of punishment is small

The harshest punishment the Convention can mete out to defaulters is by deleting the site from the World Heritage List which has been very rarely done because doing so will defeat the very purpose for which it was formed. Instead, the Committee resorts to inclusion in the World Heritage in Danger List when it wishes to make a point about how a site is being managed. Here too Committee’s actions have often become subject matter of controversies as some members were able to avoid this tag through intensive lobbying. For example, Australia’s federal government spent a reported $300,000 lobbying to block the proposed UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef.

Its listing practice is also controversial

UNESCO started the practice of listing some precious heritage sites in its World Heritage Sites List with an objective of promoting conservation which too has started attracting criticism. A large lobbying industry has grown around the awards because World Heritage listing can significantly increase tourism returns. Site listing bids are often lengthy and costly, putting poorer countries at a disadvantage. Several listed locations such as George Town in Penang, Casco Viejo in Panama and Hội An in Vietnam have struggled to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to greatly increased visitor numbers and preserving the original culture and local communities that drew the recognition.

Indeed, motives behind the Convention were noble ones, also moved by desperation by nations but letting space for proliferation of greed and power-hungry politics has diverted the efforts from the original objectives. UNESCO is also limited because its recommendations must be voted up or down by the World Heritage Committee, composed of representatives of 21 nations elected on a two-year rotation.

Power is concentrated in a small group

Though UNESCO is a specialised agency of United Nations and has 193 countries as its members, the organisation is virtually controlled by World Heritage Committee which has representatives from 21 countries. The Committee is often accused of placing a heavy emphasis on furthering the goals of its parent organization when considering which sites are worthy of World Heritage status. The Committee has complete control over who gets funding for which projects so long as they fall within certain broad criteria. It’s the Committee that decides whether a state merits funding for a project, and more importantly each decision can be made according to whatever criteria the Committee decides is relevant in that instance which makes the Committee even more powerful and also controversial. In addition, since a seven member Bureau heads the Committee, setting the agenda, power is consolidated within a small group which can channelise funds for some projects over others for ideological, political, or pecuniary reasons.

All said and done, it is true that if the Convention and its Committee continue to function the way it currently does, we soon may see sites that are not qualified getting inscribed on the World Heritage list and some of the most invaluable sites/monuments getting erased from the list due to manmade acts of commission and omission. While it is true that the Convention and the Committee do not even come close to performing at its intended level, no other organization in the world has enough clout to fix the state of site preservation on a global scale. Therefore, the World Heritage program requires concrete and serious efforts at transformation and that too very urgently.

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