Could not load widget with the id 2575.

Giza to the Galápagos: A Critique of the Current UNESCO World Heritage System and How to Fix It

Giza to the Galápagos: A Critique of the Current UNESCO World Heritage System and How to Fix It

Tim Cunningham

In 1959, the Egyptian government took steps towards the construction of the Aswan Dam. The completion of this dam would result in the flooding of the Nile Valley, home to the Abu Simbel temple complex.[1] To preserve the cultural heritage of Egypt, the temples and other cultural monuments needed to be moved to safety. However, the costs of this extensive project totaled over U.S. $80,000,000.[2] Despite the enormous cost, there was general acceptance throughout the world that the history and culture was at risk if the project were to fail. With this in mind, the international community funded half of the project costs.[3] This immensely successful project was the first undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO.[4]

UNESCO served to, “maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge: By assuring the conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science, and recommending to the nations concerned the necessary international conventions.” [5] As the threats to world heritage grew, the need for further UNESCO involvement followed suit. With so much on the line, UNESCO passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the Convention). [6] This Convention enshrined the international commitment to preservation with powerful language, saying that each Party must recognize, “that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage.” [7]

The main purpose of the Convention is to establish a World Heritage List (the List) consisting of significant global properties to ensure the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.[8] This List, operated by the World Heritage Committee (the Committee), is devoted to preserving international natural heritage.[9] The Committee seeks to avoid destruction of listed properties from continued development, natural disasters, and tourist over-consumption.[10]

However, within this leadership, exist several problems that lead to the biased and unequal representation of properties on the List. The Committee faces several real and complex issues, including: the consolidation of power in the Committee as a small group, the vague and broad property selection criteria, the Committee’s lack of influence over which properties are nominated, the lack of enforcement tools available to the Committee, the funding the Committee receives, and the inequality in distribution of the listed properties. To solve these intertwined problems, the Committee must make a concerted effort to become more impartial and less self-interested.

The solution to the issue of power consolidation is notably difficult, but can be resolved by implementing an objective system with a list of priorities and a new voting system. For example, a narrowing of the selection criteria will help limit the potential properties on the List, but this will require an in-depth analysis. Additionally, the lack of enforcement tools is perhaps one of the most difficult to address. As with any international leadership, the capacity to enforce a decision at a worldwide level onto a sovereign state is problematic at best. Developing reasonable enforcement techniques will require analysis of soft power influence mechanisms. Furthermore, the lack of funding for the Committee is an issue, and directly ties into the ability of the Committee to achieve its mission to conserve and preserve the properties with outstanding universal value.[11] Finally, the most apparent issue with the List is the unequal representation of one nation’s culture at the cost of the culture of other nations.

With Europe and the developed world significantly overrepresented the solution to rebalancing the List is multi-faceted. This Note will assert that the Committee must adhere to a set of priorities when listing properties and must provide improved assistance to developing nations in the nomination process of their properties. Ultimately, adhering to the proposed solutions should allow a more fair and unbiased Committee to create and maintain a more balanced List.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Stefania Ferrucci, UNESCO’s World Heritage Regime and its International Influence 11 (2012).

[2] Diana Zacharias, The UNESCO Regime for the Protection of World Heritage as Prototype of an Autonomy-Gaining International Institution, 9 German L.J. 1835 (2008).

[3] Id.

[4] Ferrucci, supra note 1.

[5] Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, art. I, § 2, para. (c).

[6] Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Adopted UNESCO General Conference 17th Session, Nov. 16, 1972.

[7] art. IV.

[8] art. XI.

[9] art. VII.

[10] art. IV.

[11] art. I.

Submissions The Vermont Law Review continually seeks articles, commentaries, essays, and book reviews on any subject concerning recent developments in state, federal, Native American, or international law.

Learn more about the submissions process >