longform preservation

UNESCO’s Fiascos: The Politics of Listing in Cultural Preservation

Listing on, listing off--how the UNESCO listing process is politicized in an age of rising nationalism, and whether or not it is possible to envision an international stewardship model for world heritage.

UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was founded as a special arm of the United Nations in 1945. The mantra of the organization is “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed.” (Keough 2011) It is worth pointing out here that UNESCO’s first goal is  “contributing to peace and security.” In other words, the goal is peace, and the goal is met through consensus between member states and project-building. The charter states: “ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war.” Maintaining and diffusing knowledge of world heritage, then, is NOT done for its own sake, but for the larger purpose of creating points of commonality and understanding between states.

In 1972, UNESCO issued the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Convention tasks member states with “ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of…cultural and natural heritage” (Convention 1972). To that end, the 1972 convention established the World Heritage Committee, a group responsible for voting in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List. The Committee is composed of 21 members states which rotate every four years (total membership is 190 states). Advising and informing the Committee are two councils of experts– the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).  It is the responsibility of the Advisory Councils (which are staffed by preservation professionals, such as architects, archeologists, and regional cultural scholars) to review properties that are are submitted for nomination by individual states to make recommendations to the Committee on whether the site is truly of “outstanding universal value” based on 10 possible selection criteria.

The advisory bodies also review cases in which an existing UNESCO site is placed on a “Heritage in Danger” List, a list reserved for those properties which are in danger of losing their UNESCO status because of “serious and specific dangers” (UNESCO 1972 Article 11). However, it is important to note that Advisory bodies, while they provide expert testimony, cannot mandate a final decision–it is the delegates of World Heritage Committee that votes and ultimately decides if a property should be placed on a World Heritage List.  Inclusion on the list is symbolically important, in that it gives a historic site international prestige and attention and establishes it as a travel-worthy destination; however, listing also confers direct financial benefits, in the form of access to the World Heritage Fund, which equipes members states with 4 million dollars a year to identify and maintain sites.

What are the problems with the UNESCO system?

The UNESCO system has many limitations and issues. First, compared to private world heritage entities like the World Monuments Fund, UNESCO has very little power (or money) to enforce its will in the world; it eschews public-private partnerships in favor of remaining above and outside of the market-driven aspects of heritage upkeep and tourism (Economist, June 12, 2012)). Second, there is no system for balancing access to resources between member states (Keough 601).  Third, a seven member bureau (out of the 21 participating delegates) sets the agenda for the group when it meets once a year, which represents an even smaller consolidation of power (Keough 601)

Yet all of these issues are but small components or amplifications of an overall larger issue, which is that–fundamentally–it is State members that are tasked with the nomination of and upkeep of historic properties: “The States Parties undertake, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention, to give their help in the identification, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage… if the States on whose territory it is situated so request.” (UNESCO 1972). Nominations can only originate from member states; UNESCO facilitates them, but cannot initiate them.

Putting state actors in control of a process ostensibly aimed at identifying and preserving sites of universal human value presents at least two major problems. The first is simply an issue of resources:  Most of the work of developing nominations–the time, energy, money and on the ground expertise necessary in preparing a site file for review–fall on the State. States that are economically or politically tenuous and have few resources to spare are immediately disadvantaged in the process. For example, this is one reason Italy has over 40 listed sites while Nigeria, a much larger country with as many or more significant periods of high civilization and urbanization, has only two. Moreover, those states which nominate a site while also having a acting member in rotation on the Committee are disproportionately successful in in securing a listing (Van der Aa 2005).  Thus this process inherently facilitates a competition and conflict BETWEEN nations as states vy for what is correctly viewed as a limited pool of resources for world cultural preservation.

A second and even more problematic issue is that a state-driven process results in nominations that are inherently or directly beneficial to the contemporary ruling state–only those properties that promote a history that confirms or supports the existing leadership may be allowed to advance to candidacy, depending on how tolerant a regime is of competing national narratives. It is not surprising that member states can and do utilize the site nomination process as a way of making both external and internal political statement about what kind of heritage (and, by extension, people and traditions) matter the most within their borders.  Thus the UNESCO nomination process also facilitates competition and conflict WITHIN nations, as powerful state-level cultural agencies exclude, skew, hide, or diminish opportunities for the heritage of ethnic or cultural minorities within a region to reach a world heritage status–especially in post-colonial situations. For example, sites important to the Kurdish people, who are distributed across Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, are unlikely to reach a world heritage level because their culture no longer conforms to its historical regional boundaries, fractured as it is between three hostile states whose borders were drawn by British colonials after the second world war. This is a case in which contemporary national boundaries, however flimsy, limit in a very real way the possibility of acknowledging and maintaining the physical built history of a people.

With that in mind, the remainder of this essay will explore three post-colonial case studies--a temple in Thailand, a national park in South Africa, and a church in Palestine–in which the UNESCO process has been hijacked to advance narrow, nationally focused economic, political, or cultural goals. In all cases, the inclusion or exclusion of a potential or existing heritage site on the list has become highly politicized, creating conditions of conflict between or within member states, rather than the cooperation envisioned in UNESCOs founding document. All three of the cases addressed, moreover, are instances in which the UNESCO national delegates voted AGAINST the advice of its expert bodies, moving ahead with a listing (or de-listing) strategy as part of a larger political or economic agenda. There are three salient questions in regards to each case: 1. What is the background to the nomination and the ensuing conflict of interest? 2. Where did the UNESCO delegates violate the spirit of the original charter with their particular decision? 3. What implications does this case have for future decisions in the same vein?

Preah Vihear, Thailand’s Nationalist Flashpoint

History and Background to Nomination

Preah Vihear is an 11th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva located in a remote piece of land on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. The temple and the land around it carry a long history as a lightening rod for tensions between Thailand and Cambodia. The temple was built by the Khmer kings of the Angkorean period (802-1431 CE) who controlled territory in both countries; in the 16th century, the decline of the Khmer kings and the Siamese-Cambodian war resulted in a brief occupation of the then Kingdom of Cambodia by the Kingdom of Siam. Cambodia remained a protectorate of Siam through the beginning of the 19th century, when control passed to French in 1863 during the period of European colonization of Indochina.

The temples role in modern history, however, is even more provocative.  Thailand’s cooperation with Vichy France and Japan during the second world war enabled the country to occupy large portions of western Cambodia, including the temple, which they returned only reluctantly (Economist, Feb 7th 2011). In 1962, the International Court of Justice heard a case concerning the temple, which was claimed by both countries. Ultimately, the court awarded possession to Cambodia, partly on the basis that it is a contemporary of Angkor Wat, another UNESCO site within Cambodia, and partly on the basis of a map produced by French surveyors in Indo-China in 1904, which depicted Preah Vihear on the Cambodian side. During the Cambodian civil war, Preah Vihear was the last stronghold of the Khmer National Armed Forces (of the Khmer Republic) until Khmer Rouge rebels captured the site in mid 1975.

For these reasons, the temple is a long running sore spot in the history of Thai-Cambodian relations, a symbol of resentment and distrust for both countries. Thailand remained unhappy with the 1962 ICJ decision, contending that the map was not binding because it was never formally approved by Siam (Thailand) in their negotiations with the French. Cambodians, for their part, remember Thailand’s expulsion of Cambodian refugees in 1979; thousands were rounded up and deposited at Preah Vihear, where they received little protection. Despite a long and ongoing dispute over ownership, in June 2008, the Cambodian government under prime minister Hun Sen secured cooperation with the government of Thailand under prime minister Samak Sundaravej (leader of the People’s Power Party, PPP) for the UNESCO nomination of Preah Vihear. The Thai government agreed to support the proposal on the basis that its support would not be misconstrued as a concession on its claim to the 4.6 sq km of territory on which the temple sits, on which the ICJ did not rule specifically and the dispute over the land itself remains ongoing (ICJ, 1962)

The concord did not last; by July of the same year, Thai leadership was hammered by local news and opposition parties, who proclaimed that the agreement to support Cambodia’s nomination was a failure to protect Thai sovereignty (Economist, July 11th 2008). Despite the withdrawal of Thai support, the World Heritage Committee added Preah Vihear to the world heritage list on July 8, 2008, prompting the eruption sporadic violence between Thai and Cambodian forces along the border and at the site of the temple. Between 2008 and 2011, dozens of people on both sides of the border, including non-combatants, died from intermittent shelling (the temple itself received some minimal damage) the site was shut down to tourist traffic, and thousands of residents fled the area (Economist, Nov. 12, 2013).  The nomination itself could not have come at a worse time; it served, along with complaints about amendments to a 2007 Thai constitution, as currency for a 2008-2010 national campaign of disruption lead by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (an opposition party), who had been staging regular street protests since May 2008.

Implications: Heritage as Weapon for Nationalist Politics

Preah Vihear is an interesting example of a situation in which a property that is definitively worthy of listing was elected to be listed at the wrong political moment. In failing to demonstrate sensitivity to and knowledge of the regional political implications of listing, the UNESCO committee unwittingly sparked a violent protest that fed into nationalist political agendas, resulting in mobilization and ultimately, another political coup for Thailand. This is the thesis of Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and its Solutions, a book written by two Thai scholars (Charnvit Kasetsiri and Pavin Chachavalpongpun) and Pou Sothirak, the Cambodian Minister for Industry, Mines, and Energy. The authors contend that the revival of the issue of contested land around Preah Vihear in 2008, so many years after 1962 ICJ case, was part of a strategy by Thailand’s local political opposition to discredit and ultimately overthrow the government of the then prime minister Samak Sundaravej and the People’s Power Party. Using the nomination agreement with Cambodia as fodder, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (an opposition party to the PPP) used to incident to criticize the recently elected Thai government, brought to power in a 2007 election (not long after a 2006 military coups).

One lesson to be learned from Preah Vihear is that nascent states, which already struggle with issues of good governance and transparency, engage with the UNESCO process in a different way than established ones. Thailand is the reoccurring definition of a nascent country; since the beginning of the country’s constitutional monarchy in 1932,  the country has had 12 successful political coups and 8 attempted coups. Thailand cycles back and forth between elected leadership and military-imposed dictators; its most recent coups was in 2014, when the Thai military once again declared martial law, rewrote the Thai constitution, and promised to hold elections in 2016. In nascent states such as Thailand, Nichole Jenne contends, a nation has yet to find its identity or cultural center, cannot depend on predictable institutional processes, has uneven economic development, and has no stable bureaucracy to see it through political transitions. This results in “[a]…concern with status,” especially in the arena of foreign policy. “The failure to build societal consensus and extreme fragmentation among the elites, especially in the Thai context, effectively raised the political, economic and emotional value of the Preah Vihear temple.”

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Mineral Wealth and BRIC Solidarity

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape (MCL) is a 30,000 hectare site in South Africa, on the country’s border with Botswana and Zimbabwe. Per its category as both a site of cultural and natural status, Mapungubwe retains both palatial sites and rich archaeological deposits of an Iron-age African kingdom of the same name (300 -1300 CE) and a nearly pristine, ecologically diverse savannah landscape.  The site was inscribed by UNESCO in 2003 and is maintained by the three border nations through a memorandum of agreement (UNESCO). The agreement includes the establishment of a 100,000 hectare buffer zone around the region.

In 2010, the World Heritage Centre was alerted to the potential threat to Mapungubwe caused by recent mining operations in the buffer zone. Despite reservations by the Environmental Department, the South African Minerals Department had granted Coal of Africa, an Australian company, a permit to construct a power plant and conduct open cast coal mining at Vele, a site about 7 km away from the park’s boundaries and 27 km away from Mapungubwe Hill, a key archaeological site  (Mail & Guardian, July 15, 2011). The concerns about the coal plants effects on resources at Mapungubwe were many; representatives from the Environmental Department stated that blasting operations could lead to a total collapse of archaeological sites, and that around the clock lighting and noise would disrupt tourism and permanently affect the sense of place (Mail & Guardian, July 15, 2011).

The South African government temporarily halted area mining operations by Coal of Africa. Subsequently, UNESCO sponsored a monitoring mission, which reported its results during the 36th sitting of the World Heritage Committee in 2012. The report confirmed that mining activity had continued and expanded at the site; the authors expressed the opinion that there were no mitigation measures that could properly address the scale and intensity of the damage done to the site by open cast mining. The report also critiques the Heritage Impact Assessment produced by the South African government, chastising the state for an inadequate management plan, which failed to address the concerns of local residents  (UNESCO Report, 2012).

Implications: Heritage as Bartering Chip for BRIC Solidarity

MCL was a site that meet UNESCO’s criteria for inclusion on the Heritage in Danger List, because its issue (the encroaching coal mining)  was both “serious and specific” (UNESCO 1972 Article 11). And despite the damning evidence in the report and the recommendation by UNESCO advisory bodies IUCN, ICOMOS, and the World Heritage Centre that MCL was a compromised site, the World Heritage Committee did not vote to inscribe MCL on the endangered sites list. Ultimately, the state party only received a slap on the wrist, in the form of a call for a new management plan and an updated report, to be given to the Committee by February 2016.

Lynn Meskell, an anthropologist who works with UNESCO and was present for the June 2012 session, documents the politicking involved. Meskell’s proposition is that South Africa was able to avoid the placement of MCL on the list of world heritage in danger (which it would seek to avoid for reasons of status and tourism opportunities) by forming bloc voting groups with other members of the current World Heritage Committee in 2012. Specifically, she cites the growing importance of alliances between the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

The BRICS, allied as both culturally non-western powers and as countries in similar stages of new economic development, increasingly support one another’s development goals in a fashion that, to Meskell, reads largely as tit for tat.  She notes that Russia’s support for South Africa’s bid to keep MCL off the endangered list was repaid in full when South Africa voted to keep the Virgin Komi Forests of Russia, affected by state sponsored mining events, off of the endangered list as well (Meskell 5). This deal between BRIC nations raises an important issue: Developing nations do face more challenging tradeoffs between economic development and heritage conservation than established ones. When they conspire at the committee level to vote as a bloc to avoid de-listing (and the subsequent lost of tourism and research dollars), they create uneven, unequal standards for heritage sites and mute potentially important conversations about the larger role extractive industries (particularly the energy industries) play in these countries. The high standards of preservation envisioned by the originating body cannot be maintained under these circumstances; moreover, the offending parties cannot be taken to task.  

The Church Of the Nativity, Palestine’s Status and US Disapproval

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, located on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is revered as the traditional birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth and is an important religious site for both Christians and Muslims. The church was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in 327 CE, destroyed in the 6th century, and rebuilt in 565 by Emperor Justinian. Like the previous case of Preah Vihear, (and much like other historic properties in the West Bank) the Church has both a deep cultural history valued across nations as well as a more recent and modern role in regional conflicts; most recently, in 2002, Palestinian gunmen occupied the church (along with clerics and civilians) as Israeli tanks and troops advanced. The siege lasted 39 days (NY Times, June 29, 2012).

In the midst of frozen peace talks between Israel and Palestine in 2011, Palestine was admitted as a member to UNESCO, despite efforts by the United States and Israel to block its membership. Palestine’s membership, though accepted by committee members 107 to 14, resulted in a heavy financial loss for UNESCO when the US, citing a law that denies funding to any body that admits Palestine, yanked its annual funding for UNESCO (about 65 million, or 22% of UNESCO’s annual budget).  In 2012, The Palestinian Authority (PA) began pursuing the nomination of the Church of the Nativity unilaterally, despite protests from Israel, who wanted to register the church jointly. The PA stated that this was not possible, stating that Palestine would not hold formal negotiations with Israel until Israel agreed to freeze settlement activity and building in east Jerusalem (Lazeroff 1). Their bid was successful; the Church of the Nativity was both added to the heritage list in 2012 and, somewhat unusually, simultaneously placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger.

It is this last category that registered to non-supportive member states as a particularly political choice. Listing a site as “endangered “ either “implies solidarity with a country or [is] a rebuke for poor conservation” (Economist, June 14, 2012). As such, the category has typically been reserved for properties in imminent danger of destruction through ongoing armed conflict (such as Crak des Chevaliers and the Mosque of Damascus, both caught in the crossfire of the Syrian civil war) or sites in danger of losing their pristine natural or cultural important status through other forces, such as rapid development (such as Portobelo San-Lorenzo in Panama).

Implications: Heritage as Lever for Palestine’s UN Ambitions

The case of the Church of the Nativity is unusually political. Listing on the endangered heritage list in particular was against the advice of the advisory bodies, which counseled that although the church was damaged and in need of conservation (it’s most troubling issue is water damage from unrepaired leaks), it did not appear to be in imminent danger and therefore did not qualify for emergency status (NY Times, June 29, 2012)  Because the Committee did not follow the advice of its expert advisory bodies, Israeli leadership interpreted the decision as political and biased in favor of Palestine, who argued that the church is endangered by Israel and Israeli settlement activities.

Both Palestine’s membership and the nomination of the Church of the Nativity represent buildup to the PA’s ongoing attempts to join the UN General Assembly as a recognized member state. Palestine’s membership in UNESCO, though less critical, does confer some benefits and powers; for example, Palestine can challenge Israeli claims to ownership over important religious sites it seized during the six Day War of 1967, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Bloomfield, 1).   The church was a site with clear historical value but contested ownership, and in granting Palestine sole cultural ownership over the nomination process, it gave the state important symbolic capital, a tool to advocate for its recognition by other international bodies. The acceptance of a one-sided nomination was unusual, and articulated the voting member state’s position regarding Palestinian sovereignty. It could be argued that the taking of sides, in this case, goes against UNESCO’s original mission.

De-Politicizing the Listing Process

“In its involvement with heritage sites around the globe, the World Heritage program may have created a culture of economic and political quagmires rather than cooperation and preservation.”(Keough 2011).  Certainly the UNESCO nomination process can be (and has been increasingly) used as a political act used to advance specific and time-bound contemporary agendas. Specifically, the process of listing sites–either putting them on or taking them off UNESCO’s heritage list–is becoming a casualty of nationalist priorities. If the process itself, which emphasizes grandstanding, deal-making, and the consideration of factors beside cultural integrity in the nomination process, is transforming cultural sites of infinite and complex value into bargaining chips for national and state governments, we have to ask whether this uneven type of stewardship is really performing UNESCO’s overall goals of advancing peace through mutual understanding.

Despite the inherently competitive nature of the current process, solutions and approaches both academic and practical have been proposed to de-politicize the UNESCO system, or to at least expand the way UNESCO funds and legitimizes heritage. The Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) calls for a broader understanding of diversity and heritage, and establishes that the concept of “authenticity” varies from culture to culture, thereby promoting the need for more nuanced and careful case-by-case approach to cultural legitimacy. A new “Upstreaming Process”, suggested at the 33rd UNESCO session in 2009, is designed to assist underrepresented countries “in preparing robust conservation dossiers and identifying the criteria for outstanding universal value” (Meskell 2011) thereby removing some potential barriers that face cultural properties in nascent, unstable, or economically undeveloped states. Finally, some academics have suggested scrapping the existing state-driven nomination process altogether, in favor of random selection (Steiner and Frey 2011). Thus there is some hope that alternatives to an increasingly compromised process can be found.
With nationalism dangerously on the rise, international institutions, including UNESCO, will struggle to uphold the high postwar principles of their original founding.

Image Credit: Preah Vihear, Tetsuya Kitahata [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]


Introduction Sources:

1.Unesco Monuments convention text 1972; http://whc.unesco.org/en/conventiontext/

2.Original UNESCO charter: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

3.Frey, Bruno and Lasse Steiner. 2011. “Selecting World Heritage Sites: A New Proposal.”http://voxeu.org/article/what-wonderful-world-picking-unesco-world-heritage-sites

4.Cultural Diversity, Heritage, and Human Rights: https://books.google.com/books?id=sjaMAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA8&lpg=PA8&dq=unesco+nomination+denied+ethnic+minority&source=bl&ots=it5_pQC0QC&sig=hiAMWsQeVVnUtdDaMiN-t327txw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiqu9X1x-3QAhVD2GMKHcTkApQQ6AEIOzAF#v=onepage&q=unesco%20nomination%20denied%20ethnic%20minority&f=false

5. Keough, Elizabeth. 2011. “Heritage in peril: a critique of UNESCO’s heritage program.”


6. Meskell, Lynn. “UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention at 40: Challenging the Economic and Political Order of International Heritage Conservation.”


7. “Living Treasure.” The Economist, June 12, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21558560

Preah Vihear Sources:

1.”Open Fire Between Thailand and Cambodia”.


2. “Explaining Thailand’s Volatile Politics: Sept. 11, 2011”:


3.”Thai Anger as Disputed Cambodian Temple Wins Heritage Status.”


4.”Once More, with Feeling”:


5.“Thai-Cambodian Conflict Rooted in History”

6. “Temple Dispute.”


7. International Court of Justice: Cambodia vs. Thailand


8. “Cambodia and Thailand Clash over Preah Vihear”


9. “Thai-Cambodia clashes: timeline:”


10. Jenna, Nichole. “Review: Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and It’s Solutions by Charnvit Kasetsiri, Pou Sothirak, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun.”  https://muse.jhu.edu/article/546976

Mapungubwe Sources:

1. “Mining in the Mapungubwe area ceases”


2. UNESCO: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape


3. Meskell, Lynn. “From Paris to Pontdrift: UNESCO Meetings, Mapungubwe, and Mining.”


4. “Unesco voices concern at Mapungubwe mining”


5. “Mapungubwe listing under threat.”


6. “Heritage vs mining”


7. “SA Committed to working with UNESCO on Mapungubwe” http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/sa-committed-to-working-with-unesco-on-mapungubwe-2012-06-29/rep_id:4136

8. “Reactive Monitoring Mission to Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape” https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwiaoKGShO7QAhXEJiYKHQvRAnQQFggcMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwhc.unesco.org%2Fdocument%2F117238&usg=AFQjCNHGT7hWdp-UZLY2oyfpv4s-KAptNw&sig2=ZZTncShtrlDAPErYU4kCrw

Church of the Nativity Sources:

1. “Living Treasure”. Economist , June 14, 2012: http://www.economist.com/node/21558560  

2.Lazaroof, Tovah. “Palestinians make second unilateral bid to register Church of the Nativity at UNESCO.”

3.“UNESCO adds Nativity Church in Bethlehem to Heritage List”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/world/middleeast/unesco-grants-heritage-status-to-nativity-church-in-diplomatic-victory-to-palestinians.html?_r=0

4.“US withdraws funding after Palestine membership” Adrian Bloomfield. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/palestinianauthority/8860951/US-withdraws-Unesco-funding-after-it-accepts-Palestinian-membership.html

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