The protection of our heritage has become a ghastly global version of Eurovision

·10-min read
Venice, Italy - Getty
Venice, Italy - Getty

Every year when we make our travel plans, we feel the desire to see more of the world’s most spectacular and historic places: Athens opens a doorway to the Acropolis; Peru, to the ruins of Machu Picchu; Zambia, to Victoria Falls. These are all Unesco World Heritage Sites – representing the ultimate bucket list, ranging from Stonehenge to the Great Wall of China.

Yet this year, in the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, founded with the high-minded ideal of protecting and preserving the cultural and natural heritage of the planet, Unesco – the international body charged with implementing those ideals – finds itself paralysed by power struggles, and prey to scheming that sees many sites listed against experts’ advice.

As Dr Bailey Ashton Adie, a visiting research fellow at Wakayama University, Japan, and author of the 2019 book World Heritage and Tourism puts it: “Listing today is less about protection and more about geopolitics, money and tourism.”

There is also a failure to protect existing World Heritage Sites such as Venice, which is threatened by rising sea levels, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is being damaged by climate change. Moves to designate these landmarks as “in danger” (a label which helps to mobilise technical and scientific expertise, and financial assistance) are being undermined by apparently political and economic motivations.

Even Unesco’s broader decision-making process is currently paralysed by politics. With the Russian Federation currently chair of Unesco’s heritage governing body and viewed by many nations as a pariah, a meeting planned for June has been shelved – indefinitely.

Yet in July last year, the process of adding new sites to the list was continuing merrily along. At the 44th meeting of that governing body, hosted in Fuzhou, China, the “Porticoes of Bologna” were nominated by Italy for inscription as a world heritage site. If successful, the municipality’s miles of colonnaded walkways, dating from the 12th century to the reinforced concrete ones of the present, would be recognised alongside the world’s most spectacular natural wonders and cultural treasures.

The decision, as always, would be taken not by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation itself, but by the heritage governing body, an elected committee – known officially as the World Heritage Committee – made up of the representatives of 21 states out of the 194 nations that have signed up to the World Heritage Convention, with each serving a four-year term.

Unesco asked the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) – an association of archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and other conservation experts – to prepare a report on the porticoes’ suitability and “outstanding universal value”.

It was unequivocal: “Icomos does not consider that any of the cultural criteria have been demonstrated at this stage.”

But Bologna City Council, which was looking forward to the huge boost the designation would give to its tourism industry, needn’t have worried – the committee inscribed the porticoes anyway, making them Italy’s 58th world heritage site, the most of any nation on Earth. “Sites keep being listed from the same geographical areas,” says Dr Adie. “If you look at Italy, it feels like everything is World Heritage at this point, and now they’ve started putting up cultural landscapes. And they keep getting listed. All signatories to the World Heritage Convention are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Italy’s triumph was not an isolated case. Of the 36 sites inscribed on the world heritage list in 2021, only 21 were recommended by Icomos’s experts. “In the case of seven inscribed sites,” Professor Emeritus Christina Cameron, Canada Research Chair on Built Heritage at the University of Montreal, tells me, the committee “ignored the advisory bodies’ advice that they could not find ‘outstanding universal value’.”

As well as the porticoes, these included tidal flats in Korea, and the Ramappa temple in India. Something has gone badly wrong. The political prize of having a site “inscribed” on the list, and the national embarrassment of having one listed as “in danger” – or even, as happened last year to Liverpool’s historic dock front, delisted – has resulted in a shift in the way that countries behave.

A listing confers prestige, and it can function as an economic engine for a whole region, driving tourism and attracting investment. In the early years, nominations were simple. In 1979, the argument to admit the pyramids of Giza ran to one page. Now states may spend millions on a bid. Being turned down is costly and unpalatable.

As a result, heritage has become a sort of ghastly global version of Eurovision, with decision-making shaped by unacknowledged alliances, and tactics that official observers Lynn Meskell and Claudia Liuzza have described as “persuasion, interference, incentivisation, coercion, exaction or even threats”.

Where countries once appointed cultural experts as their representatives, as specified in the convention, they increasingly make political appointments to get the outcomes they want.

“There have been periods of time when the political teaming-up of members of the committee has overwritten the heritage review processes and the inscription process in particular,” says Patricia O’Donnell, the president of Our World Heritage, a volunteer global group that aims to give a voice to civil society, often ignored in the process, yet vital when it comes to long-term protection.

A former representative of Icomos, O’Donnell recalls: “There were countries that were basically trading favours, and saying, ‘Okay, I’ll vote for your nomination if you vote for my nomination’…. When the World Heritage Committee grossly diverges from the recommendations of Icomos and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), that’s when the politicisation process is happening.”

Last year, there was outrage when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was not placed on the “in danger” list, despite Unesco recommending to the World Heritage Committee that it should be, alongside sites such as the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria and the American Everglades.

A decision was deferred, leaving the head of Unesco’s marine programme to complain impotently that “the facts are the facts and the science is the science” – soon to be followed by the reef’s sixth major bleaching event this March. Coral is bleached white if there is a loss of the microscopic algae on which it feeds, caused by increased water temperatures or pollution. If the algae loss is prolonged, the coral dies.

A discussion on Venice and its lagoon has also been pushed back. I spoke to Anna Somers-Cocks, the founding editor of The Art Newspaper and former chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. She believes political manoeuverings have prevented Venice from being added to the “in danger” list for a decade. “It’s the most beautiful ancient, living city in the world, made up of great works of art, preserved for over a millennium, and now at risk of being destroyed by water,” she says.

Somers-Cocks has repeatedly warned that sea level rise caused by climate change is rotting the fabric of the city, as it climbs above the impermeable stone bases of Venice’s buildings into the porous bricks, washing away the mortar. Collapse is inevitable, unless action is taken, yet Italy clearly sees being listed as something to be avoided.

“Last year, at the very last minute, the Italian government conceded on a point which is important, but not actually vital to the physical survival of Venice,” Somers-Cocks says, “namely, cruise ships were banned from the centre of Venice.”

This was enough to temporarily suspend moves to label the city “in danger”. But, Somers-Cocks points out, predictions of sea level rise by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) still “completely doom the city”.

“Unesco should be saying to the Italian government: ‘Get your act together, do something! And it won’t, because Unesco has been nobbled.”

The extent to which “nobbling” occurs on the committee becomes clear in the startling 2021 study, Power, Persuasion and Preservation, by Lynn Meskell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and consulting scholar Claudia Liuzza, also quoted above. It’s based on what they witnessed as official observers at World Heritage Committee meetings from 2011-19, along with hundreds of interviews. “What unfolds in annual meetings is a range of state-to-state threats and exactions, often masquerading as consensus,” it declares.

Meskell recalls the first meeting she went to. “I remember seeing one African nation speak, and thinking, this is the world coming together. And then, within a matter of hours, I realised how countries were being pressured to take a certain line and to follow the powerful states… Many things are on the line, it’s not just heritage, it’s your aid development budget, the larger links between countries politically… That’s what you don’t see in videos or transcripts. The official transcript has shielded you from all of the machinations, where, for instance, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will defend each other and delete anything that they don’t like.”

Climate change is, of course, a major political flashpoint for many countries, especially large oil or coal-producing economies, such as Australia, Canada and Venezuela. Andrew Potts, the former co-ordinator of the Icomos Climate Change and Heritage Working Group, worked for four years on updating the Convention’s policy to take account of the “existential threat” to sites such as Venice and the Sundarbans forest in Bangladesh, only to see the new plan “fobbed off” and “scuttled unceremoniously” in the general assembly of all 194 states last year. “Interests and considerations other than science and heritage have carried the day,” he tells me.

The level of machination at Committee meetings is made explicit in Meskell and Liuzza’s study, including a witness account of an ambassador “physically intimidating another diplomat in the corridors” in 2013, and “in 2016, when the United States was lobbying for inscription of architectural sites by Frank Lloyd Wright, we observed a senior American delegate handing a prepared text to an African Committee member to read out in favour of the inscription.”

America later pulled out of Unesco under the Trump administration in 2018 but had frozen financial contributions since 2011, when the organisation granted Palestine membership. President Biden’s state department has since accelerated efforts to rejoin, yet editorials have begun weighing in: the global affairs magazine Foreign Policy opined in January that the US should not rejoin without getting something in return. That something, inevitably, involves pushing Unesco “to focus more on initiatives that further America’s foreign policy goals”. So much for “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Meskell and Liuzza note that “political concerns now routinely trump preservationist ones”. Meskell tells me that heritage can now equally be a proxy conflict about “borders, sovereignty, correcting perceived wrongs and prior conflicts”.

A Unesco spokesperson tells me. “We are well aware of the many challenges, including political, facing some World Heritage sites – 1,154 sites are inscribed on the World Heritage List, it’s unsurprising that some are the subject of some discussion. Unesco works to address these challenges by promoting dialogue between all sides and regularly reminds State Parties to comply with the World Heritage Convention’s principles.”

Can it be fixed? The challenges of protecting heritage in the 21st century are immense, and, as Somers-Cocks points out, “If you were to shut down Unesco, you’d have to reinvent it the next day.” But, Adie adds, “If we want to keep the list, we need to shift back to an expert-driven committee that’s focused on conservation and preservation, because that’s the point of the list.”

She believes there should be a cap on the number of sites listed per country. With more than a thousand in total, Unesco’s budget is spread ever more thinly. “We’ve reached peak list… Sites need to be re-evaluated in relation to their actual significance – to human culture or the natural world – not their national significance… to refocus the list on what really matters.”

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