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Photo of the Grand Canyon, a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site by Alan Carrillo on Unsplash

   World Heritage    

May 21, 2020  5:00 pm | Emily Tsui

Under the 1972 legally-binding Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (“World Heritage Convention”), “World Heritage” refers to cultural and natural sites of outstanding universal value. Under Article 4, State Parties commit to “do all it can” to identify, protect, conserve, present, and transit to future generations cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. Article 6 of the World Heritage Convention calls on State Parties to recognize that the international community has a duty to co-operate in the protection of World Heritage. To fulfill this duty, State Parties submit an inventory of cultural and natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s World Heritage Committee to be considered for inscription to the World Heritage List. The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (“Operational Guidelines”) guide the World Heritage Committee’s decision to inscribe a site to the World Heritage. Once a site is inscribed, the Operational Guidelines state that the State Party should take legislative and regulatory measures at the national and local levels to protect the property from any potential threats to its outstanding universal value, and to ensure the integrity and/or authenticity of the property. State Parties must also submit Reactive and Periodic Reports on the site conditions to the World Heritage Committee. As of 4 March 2021, there are 1,121 sites inscribed on the World Heritage List.

  • What to Know

  • The World Heritage Convention creates the international framework for the protection of cultural and natural heritage.
  • Aside from the 1972 World Heritage Convention, other international treaties negotiated under the auspices of UNESCO protect underwater cultural heritage and intangible cultural heritage. Other agreements protect cultural property from specific threats, including armed conflict and illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership.
  • The World Heritage Convention calls on UNESCO to work closely with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Rome Center), the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). These bodies have advisory status to the World Heritage Committee.
  • For States without the financial resources to ensure adequate protection of World Heritage, States may international assistance and receive funding from the World Heritage Fund, Funds-in-Trust, and the Rapid Response Facility.


To inscribe or not to inscribe?

The World Heritage Committee makes it clear that the World Heritage List represents a sample of properties of Outstanding Universal Value, which means that not all worthy properties can be inscribed to the list. The decision of a State to submit a property to the World Heritage List is based on a weighing of the benefits and drawbacks of inscription. Benefits of submitting a property for inscription include the potential of receiving international assistance for protection of the property. Once a property is inscribed, the World Heritage status of a property confers prestige onto a country, can attract increased tourism, rally political and societal will to take measures to protect the property, draw rapid conservation action, and create a sense of national pride and unity. On the other hand, without proper management, the increased tourism resulting from the inscription of a property as a World Heritage site can damage the property and encourage theft of cultural objects at the site. It can also gentrify an area and displace local populations. States that foresee an inability to manage a certain property may be better off to not submit a property for inscription.

Problems Protecting

A World Heritage Site may be inscribed on the World Heritage in Danger List when it is faced with damage to the integrity of the site caused by armed conflict, natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization, unrestrained tourism, and more. UNESCO’s World Heritage Center issues recommendations and policy briefs aimed at providing technical guidelines for States to minimize these risks to the sites. Under the World Heritage Convention, States take the primary responsibility in ensuring protection of World Heritage Sites through its national laws, policies, and programmes. This means that where there is an ineffective or unwilling government or armed conflict, the ability of the international community to protect World Heritage Sites under national jurisdiction is limited.

A recent decision at the International Criminal Court (ICC) gives hope that international courts and tribunals can be used to bring accountability to those that destroy World Heritage Sites. In 2016, the Trial Chamber VIII in Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi found Al Mahdi, a leading figure of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, guilty of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, Mali. The Court found that the destruction of World Heritage Sites affected the victims of the crimes, the people throughout Mali, and the international community. The ICC concluded Al Mahdi liable for 2.7 million euros in expenses and reparations for his destruction of buildings in the city. However, since the ICC’s jurisdiction is limited to parties to the Rome Statute, including Mali, it is unlikely that a similar prosecution will be seen at the ICC for recent damage to the World Heritage Sites of Palmyra and ancient villages in Syria, and Hatra in Iraq, for example, which are located in non-party States.

Further Reading

Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, Indigenous Peoples, World Heritage, and Human Rights, 25 Int’l J Cult Prop 245 (2018).

Bruno S. Frey and Lasse Steiner, World Heritage List: Does It Make Sense?, 17 Int’l J Cult Heritage 555 (2011).

Christina Cameron and Mechtild Rössler, Voices of the pioneers: UNESCO's World Heritage Convention 1972‐2000, 1 J Cult Heritage & Sustainable Dev 42 (May 2011).

Claire Cave and Elene Negussie, World Heritage Conservation: The World Heritage Convention, Linking Culture and Nature for Sustainable Development, London: Routledge, 2018.

Craig Forrest, International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Oxford: Routledge, 2010.

Dennis Rodwell, The UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 1972–2012: Reflections and Directions, 3 Historic Env: Pol & Prac 64 (2012)

Francesco Francioni, Cultural Heritage, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (2013)

Francesco Francioni, ed., The 1972 World Heritage Convention: A Commentary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Haydee J Dijkstal, Destruction of Cultural Heritage before the ICC: The Influence of Human Rights on Reparations Proceedings for Victims and the Accused, 17 J Int’l Crim Justice 391 (May 2019).

Herdis Hølleland, Evan Hamman, and Jessica Phelps, Naming, Shaming and Fire Alarms: The Compilation, Development and Use of the List of World Heritage in Danger, 8 Transnat’l Env L 35 (March 2019)

Janet Blake, International Cultural Heritage Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Josephine Caust and Marilena Vecco, Is UNESCO World Heritage recognition a blessing or burden? Evidence from developing Asian countries, 27 J Cult Heritage 1 (2017).

Lynn Meskell, Claudia Liuzza, and Nicholas Brown, World Heritage Regionalism: UNESCO from Europe to Asia, 22 Int’l J Cult Prop 437 (2015).

Marina Lostal, International Cultural Heritage Law in Armed Conflict: Case-Studies of Syria, Libya, Mali, the Invasion of Iraq, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Paige Casaly, Al Mahdi before the ICC: Cultural Property and World Heritage in International Criminal Law, 14 JICJ 1199 (2016).

Roger O'Keefe, World Cultural Heritage: Obligations to the International Community as a Whole, 53 Int’l & Comp LQ 189 (2004).

Roha W. Khalaf, The Implementation of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention: Continuity and Compatibility as Qualifying Conditions of Integrity, 3 Heritage 384 (May 2020)

Sherry Hutt, Caroline M. Blanco, and Stan N. Harris, Cultural Property Law: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Management, Protection, and Preservation of Heritage Resources, Chicago, IL: American Bar Association, 2017.

Stefan Disko and Helen Tugendhat, eds., World Heritage Sites and Indigenous Peoples, Copenhagen: IWGIA, 2014.

UNESCO, Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, last updated 2021.

UNESCO, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, 10 July 2019.

UNESCO, World Heritage Policy Compendium, last updated 2021.

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