UNESCO celebrates 30th anniversary of World Heritage Convention in VeniceVenice - Some 500 heritage experts, prominent representatives of politics and business are gathered in Venice for the next three days (November 14-16) to participate in an international congress entitled "World Heritage 2002: Shared Legacy, Common Responsibility."
Organized by UNESCO, the event marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, UNESCO's most widely ratified legal instrument.
Adopted in Paris on 16 November 1972, the Convention entered into force in December 1975 when it was ratified by 20 countries. Today it numbers 175 States Parties and stands as a vital instrument for concrete action in preserving threatened cultural and natural sites.
This can be seen from the many actions conducted to safeguard humanity's common heritage, including the campaign to preserve the cultural heritage of Easter Island (Chile), the restoration of mural paintings in the tomb of Amenophis III (Egypt) and the rehabilitation of the Acropolis in Athens (Greece).
Furthermore, the Convention gave birth to the World Heritage List, which now numbers 730 natural and cultural sites spread across the five continents. Bearing witness to exceptional achievements of civilizations and nature, these sites enjoy recognition for their "outstanding universal value."
As such, the term World Heritage embraces an impressive diversity of places and landscapes as emblematic as Iguazu National Park shared by Brazil and Argentina, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Japan), New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic islands, the royal palaces of Abomey (Benin) and naturally, the city of Venice and its lagoon, where the Congress takes place.
World Heritage sites face multiple threats, from wars, natural disasters and illicit excavations to sprawling urbanization and unmanaged tourism. To address the most acute problems, the World Heritage Centre earmarks an annual fund of nearly US$4 million, used to assist States Parties in taking emergency measures, as well as for training purposes.
In 2002, assistance was notably provided following gale force winds (120 km per hour) that swept over the wooden churches of Chiloé (Chile) last March, destroying the tower of Our Lady of the Rosary in Chonchi, and the August floods that damaged several world heritage sites in Central Europe, including the cultural landscape of Wachau (Austria) and the historic centre of Prague (Czech Republic).
The fund also assists certain States Parties in identifying sites for potential inscription on the List, provides technical assistance in safeguarding sites and skills training to local specialists. In addition, the "world heritage" label is a magnet for international cooperation and attracts other resources, chiefly linked to tourism.
Since the Convention was adopted 30 years ago and the World Heritage List inaugurated in 1978 with the inscription of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and 11 other sites, the very concept of world heritage has significantly evolved. From focusing on monumental and religious sites, it has expanded to include mixed sites (natural and cultural sites such as Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, the first of its kind, inscribed in 1990), cultural landscapes (23 in all, including Viñales Valley in Cuba), and places of memory (the above mentioned Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and the Island of Gorée in Senegal).
Furthermore, 33 of the 730 sites are inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which is "in no way a sanction," underlines Francesco Bandarin, director of the World Heritage Centre. "On the contrary, very often it is a way for States concerned to attract national and international attention and to take measures to overcome problems." The most recent example is the Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, the first site in Afghanistan to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, in 2002.
Finally, UNESCO's actions are by no means limited to sites on the List. "There is no double standard in heritage," insists Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director-General for Culture. "Sites inscribed on the List often serve as locomotives to call international attention to the great wealth of heritage on our planet."
The Venice meeting, hosted by the Italian government, the Veneto region and the city and province of Venice, is part of the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage, celebrated throughout 2002. The five working sessions (three mornings and two afternoons), will provide the opportunity to take stock of the Convention's 30 years but, most importantly, to explore new paths for increasing its scope and associating NGOs, civil society and the private sector in the sustainable conservation of cultural properties*.
This is a key task, as UNESCO's Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura underlines: "The identification, preservation and enhancement of sites reflecting our world's natural and cultural diversity can be assured only if governments, local authorities, business and, especially, local populations work at it together. To this end, we must incite every citizen to become an actor in the conservation and enhancement of humanity's cultural heritage."
* A number of eminent specialists will address the Congress, including former President of Mali, Alpha Oumar Konaré; Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the President of the World Heritage Committee, Tamás Fejerdy; the Director-General for Cultural Promotion and Cooperation of the Italian Chancellery, Francesco Aloisi de Larderel; the Mayor of Venice, Paolo Costa; and the Secretary-General of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Jean-Louis Luxen. UNESCO will be represented by its Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura; Deputy Director-General Marcio Barbosa; Assistant Director-General for Culture Mounir Bouchenaki; Assistant Director-General for Science, Walter Erdelen; and the Director of the World Heritage Centre, Francesco Bandarin.
Egypt's first lady Suzanne Mubarak and the Italian ministers of Culture, Giuliano Urbani, and of the Environment, Altero Matteoli, will address the closing session in the morning of November 16.
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