United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United Nations year for cultural heritage : priority on reconciliation and development

Paris - From Bamyan to Jerusalem or Sarajevo, in the past few years cultural heritage has often been a military target or the flashpoint of political, ethnic and religious conflicts. But when peace returns, the rehabilitation and enhancement of these highly symbolic sites, as well as that of cultural spaces or forms of cultural expression belonging to the intangible heritage, can sometimes help to strengthen the process of national reconciliation and revive economic activity.

Aware of these realities, UNESCO is pursuing its activities to protect cultural heritage and calls upon Member States to ratify the international conventions covering this area.

For 2002, proclaimed United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage, UNESCO has chosen the themes of reconciliation and development as the focus of its activities, which will be presented at UN headquarters in New York today by UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Culture, Mounir Bouchenaki. In his message for the Year, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said, "The biggest challenge facing UNESCO, designated lead agency for the year by the United Nations, is to make the public authorities, the private sector and civil society as a whole realize that the cultural heritage is not only an instrument for peace and reconciliation but also a factor of development."

A little over a year ago, the destruction of two giant, 1,500-year-old Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taleban shocked world opinion so deeply that it became the symbol of "crimes against culture". But cultural vandalism has happened in other parts of the world as well in recent years. In Kosovo, Islamic heritage was seriously damaged by "ethnic cleansing" operations carried out in 1998-1999. Likewise, during the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999, cultural emblems were deliberately targeted.

But once the fighting stops, rebuilding certain landmarks can help people learn how to live together in peace again. Bosnia's cultural heritage was systematically destroyed to wipe out all traces of a past shared by the different communities. Today, UNESCO and the World Bank are coordinating the work of multicultural teams rebuilding the Mostar Bridge. This $15-million project is funded by variousinternational financial institutions, the municipality of Mostar and Croatia. In a country where religious and ethnic animosity is still fresh in everyone's minds, Croat and Bosnian workers are working side-by-side in a relatively relaxed atmosphere, andbecoming reacquainted with each other.

In Cambodia, Angkor has always symbolized the dream of unity. The site's inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1992 accompanied the start of the national reconciliation process. Today, the number of tourists visiting the temple complex is growing exponentially, rising from 7,638 in 1993 to 239,091 in 2001. Ticket sales alone generated over $5 million in 2000 and the area is becoming an attractive, bustling centre of economic activity. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created in tourism, hospitality services and site maintenance. Strong international mobilisation coordinated by UNESCO has led to approximately one hundred development projects with funding of $5 million a year.

UNESCO is aware of the obstacles preventing cultural heritage from playing the unifying and economic role that it should, and has been working to safeguard it for the past 50 years. The Organization's activities have led to creation of several international instruments. In 1954, it adopted the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (known as The Hague Convention). Ratified by 101 States, this text has been strengthened by two protocols: the first (1954), which concerns movable cultural property, has been ratified by 83 States. The second (1999) provides for enhanced protection of "cultural heritage of the greatest importance for humanity", but has so far been ratified by only 10 States. Ten more countries must ratify for the Protocol to enter into force.

In 1970, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was adopted to combat plundering and trafficking of such property. Today, 92 States are parties to the Convention. UNESCO's aims to raise that to 100 by the end of the year. Several states with key art markets, such as Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan and Belgium, are preparing to ratify it. Furthermore, UNESCO was a driving force behind the 1995 adoption of the UNIDROIT Convention on stolen or illicitly exported cultural property, which aims at harmonizing private law in the 15 States party to the Convention today.

The 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the third fundamental pillar, is the most popular and famous in the body of legal texts on heritage. This document provides the framework of action in favour of the world's most outstanding cultural and natural sites, and has 167 States Parties. The World Heritage List, which was created under this convention, today includes 721 sites - 544 cultural, 144 natural and 23 mixed - in 124 countries (*). It is completed by a list of endangered world cultural heritage, which includes 31 threatened sites (**). The 1972 Convention's 30th anniversary will be celebrated at an international congress that will take place in Venice from November 14 to 16, 2002.

To further shore up protection, in November 2001 UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The main purpose of this text is to protect shipwrecks, which are key to understanding our history, especially the development of trade routes. It will enter into force three months after being ratified by 20 States.

UNESCO is working on a convention to protect the oral and intangible heritage, which includes languages, the performing arts, music, social and religious rituals, oral traditions and the processes of creating knowledge and know-how. This future convention intends to deal with the risk of the impoverishment of cultural diversity and standardization that will result from the gradual loss of the oral and intangible heritage in several parts of the world. In the past three centuries, for example, languages have become extinct or vanished at an increasingly alarming rate, especially in America and Australia. Today, at least 3,000 of the planet's 6,000 languages are threatened, according to the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, recentlypublished by UNESCO (****).

As a prelude to this future convention, which will mark an additional step towards defining the notion of heritage, a first Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (***) was made on May 18, 2001. The impact on some of these first 19 masterpieces has been remarkable, in terms of both protecting and promoting these manifestations of living culture.

For example, in the Dominican Republic, following the proclamation of the Brotherhood ofthe Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella, which organises socio-religious ceremonies stemming from African-American culture, threats have disappeared: the plan to build a road that would have cut in half the village of Mata Los Indios, the community's core, has been abandoned, and the confraternity's activities have become more famous than ever (via CD-Rom, participation in events, etc.). In Benin, where UNESCO has honoured the oral traditions of the Gèlèdé, a budget has been earmarked and the International Gèlèdé Centre is going to be created to protect and promote them. Regional and national recognition of oral traditions on a continent where they play a vital role is a perfect example of how culture can defend the collective memory and contribute to dialogue and development.

As UNESCO's Director-General stated in his message, "The cultural heritage of a people is the memory of its living culture. It is expressed in many different forms, both tangible and intangible. The origins of this heritageare multifarious, too. In retracing its own cultural lineage, in recognizing the many different influences that have marked its history and shaped its identity, a people is better able to build peaceful relations with other peoples, to pursue what is often an age-old dialogue and to forge its future." The unknown hands that posted a sign above the door of the Kabul Museum that reads, "A nation is alive when its culture is alive" must surely have wanted to say the same thing.

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The full text of the Director-General's message :

Source Press Release No.2002-18
Website 1 (URL) Website : World Heritage Centre
Website 2 (URL) Website : World Heritage List In Danger
Website 3 (URL) Website : Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity - Proclamation - 18 May 2001
Website 4 (URL) Website : Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, UNESCO Publishing
Publication Date 02 Apr 2002
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