UNESCO Documents and Procedure: The Need to Account for Political Conflict When Designating World Heritage Sites

March 1, 2009

By Allan C. Galis, published on March 1, 2009, in Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention has been called “the most successful global instrument for the protection of cultural and natural heritage,” 1 while also being criticized as “an instrument of ‘foreign domination.’ ” 2 Adopted by the United Nations in 1972, the World Heritage Convention (the Convention) is intended to identify, protect, and preserve cultural and natural heritage sites of “outstanding universal value” around the world. 3 Currently, 890 sites are protected under the Convention, 4 but not all of these listings were accepted without controversy. 5 The most recent controversial listing involves a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. The controversy surrounds the Temple of Preah Vihear and its inclusion on the World Heritage List (the List) as a Cambodian site. 6

When determining whether a site should be inscribed on the List, the World Heritage Committee primarily determines whether the site meets one or more of ten criteria for “outstanding universal value.” 7 A secondary consideration is that each potential site must meet certain “conditions of integrity and/or authenticity.” 8 Finally, the nominating state must ensure that an adequate system of protection and management of the site is in place prior to inscription on the List. 9 Absent from the selection criteria and the nomination and selection processes at large, however, is any mechanism for dealing with sites which are the source of, or otherwise involved in, political dispute.

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