1 Introduction

For a meeting organized in March 2020, we invited eminent experts to contribute personal reflections on global governance, a thematic issue progressively emerging as one of the main topics in the debates addressing the achievements and failures of the World Heritage Convention in the context of its 50th anniversary. Focusing on the political core of what we refer to as the World Heritage system, these reflections are personal stances distilled from decades of experience and insights into procedures, institutional rituals and political logic, weighed against the World Heritage Convention’s ambitions for conservation, cooperation and transcultural opportunities. How does the evolution of global governance impact the dynamics of the Convention’s implementation 50 years after its adoption? The reflections collected here offer broadened perspectives on trends that have become evident in the last decades.

The future of global heritage governance will inescapably shape the future of heritage. The question of governance is therefore of particular relevance to young and emerging experts in the heritage profession. Therefore, the voices of Master students from World Heritage Studies at Brandenburg University of Technology are also included, with their analysis of the impact of civil society initiatives on the governance of the World Heritage system.

2 International Versus Local Governance

The World Heritage Convention is an instrument mostly used for celebratory appreciation of diversity and heritage. To most governments it is an instrument of recognition, rather than of conservation and management. This clearly is the reason for the success of the Convention itself. Experts and international organizations like ICCROM are more concerned about the actual practice of conservation and management, which is precisely the core intention of the Convention.

We have to recognise upfront that it is an intergovernmental Convention where States Parties take the decisions. In my view, therein lies the fundamental issue of the Convention. For nation states, governance is about identity and self-preservation. The current pandemic with its vaccine nationalism and origins blame game (e.g., referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus or the South African deadly variant) clearly demonstrates the confrontational dynamics of states’ interests and requisites of international governance.

We have been discussing in the past linking global and local in the implementation of the Convention. Perhaps we are missing a crucial point in this discussion – what is happening at the national level? How are national governments working to bridge the gaps between international and local practices and realities, other than by nominating new sites for inscription? National governments use heritage as an instrument of politics and power to further national priorities and identitarian claims. Yet, conservation, in whatever form, is practised at the local level. Global and local issues are also linked to the international order of governance; there are democratic and non-democratic states. How local issues are dealt with mainly depends on the governance of nation states, which impacts the practical processes of accepting, presenting and interpreting multiple narratives of heritage places. How can these local processes be accommodated in a World Heritage governance system that increasingly promotes culturally loaded approaches at the expense of locally driven systems and thought processes? Experts come from particular countries and regions.

From my non-expert experience work in Africa, it is evident that World Heritage does have some success stories to tell. Particularly where it has generated political interest at the national level. In turn, this can lead to greater attention to heritage organizations and better management, benefitting some cultural sites (for example, in Burkina Faso with the nomination of Loropéni). But we have to ask fundamental questions on the whole process. In places like Africa, what has been the advantage for local communities? Are they even considered in the governance of these sites, which are in protected zones and managed by conservation experts? Has the label of World Heritage caused any improvements in their livelihoods? Perhaps that is not the concern of the Convention, considering the process ends for most governments with the nomination of a site.

There are also important issues to consider in light of the predominance of cultural sites in Africa focused on archaeological or European heritage. Even the so-called “outstanding universal value” of a site like Great Zimbabwe refers to the Queen of Sheba and the role of the site as a medieval capital – despite archaeological evidence to the contrary. World Heritage concepts and practices could learn from recent discussions on heritage and museum developments arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Heritage sites in Africa celebrate colonial history; rarely do we find places dedicated to African achievements and liberation struggles. The Rhodes Must Fall movement has clearly demonstrated the need to balance colonial history and African heritage. World Heritage experts who dismiss these movements as political machinations far removed from the realities of the hard conservation science and architectural analysis, give credence to the idea that African heritage begins and ends with colonialism.

3 Harnessing the Global Village to Conserve World Heritage Sites

The 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention is a treaty among nation states. From a governance perspective, States Parties consider that they control the process and the outcomes. From a legal viewpoint, they are correct. The Convention does not mention civil society in its text and has been correctly criticized for its concentration of power at the level of national governments. Initially uninterested in the participation of civil society, the World Heritage Committee modified its position in 2005 by explicitly encouraging the participation of a wide variety of communities, stakeholders and non-governmental organizations in the work of World Heritage, albeit not as decision makers.

Much has changed in fifty years, especially in the field of communications. Information technologies have connected people throughout the world, fostering an informed and engaged citizenry. Reconsideration of global governance of World Heritage is therefore timely, especially in light of the many pressures on World Heritage sites that nation states alone have not been able to respond to. To fulfil the promise of the World Heritage Convention, broad intersectoral engagement in conservation is needed to confront the threats of our time.

In the 1960s, when television was in its infancy, a visionary Canadian university professor, Marshall McLuhan, predicted that “the new electronic interdependence would recreate the world in the image of a global village” (1962, 1964). McLuhan invented this catchy term “global village” to suggest that the world had grown closer through this new technology. While the World Heritage Convention’s vision to conserve significant cultural sites and natural areas remains valid, the phenomenon of an interconnected world has affected the implementation of the Convention and exposed some fault lines in the system.

From the outset – and still today – States Parties consider that they “own” the Convention. Governance is in the hands of national governments who engage in intergovernmental decision-making and provide direction to implement the Convention within their countries. This is essentially a top-down exercise, a closed system that limits its effectiveness. Within countries, links between central authorities and individual site managers are often not strong, given the myriad levels of government that interrupt the flow of information and stifle dialogue. Even weaker – or non-existent – are the connections between States Parties and non-state actors. The top-down process is exclusive. As a result, there are no access points for the excluded.

Among those with an interest in World Heritage but not mentioned in the Convention, are organizations, including, among others, governmental and non-governmental organizations, universities, research institutions, civil society, communities and individuals. Many are well aware of World Heritage activities through traditional and social media. Many also play a significant role in protecting and conserving World Heritage sites. Yet, the Convention does not assign any official role to them. States Parties, the advisory bodies (ICOMOS, IUCN and ICCROM) and the UNESCO secretariat all enjoy a statutory legitimacy that outsiders do not. In fact, voices from external groups have no official place in World Heritage processes. Moreover, if representatives from these groups are admitted as observers to committee sessions, their voices are only heard at the discretion of the chairperson – and only after the committee has taken its decision on their issue.

Beyond the exclusion of voices, the governance model is also weakened by increasing politicization, well documented by Lynn Meskell (2018) in A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Dream of Peace. The live streaming of the annual sessions of the World Heritage Committee in the past decade has revealed this situation to a global audience. Observers from around the world can now better understand how this politicization occurs, particularly in the processes for new inscriptions and additions to the List of World Heritage in Danger. It is arguable that many sites are in reality national priorities – presented by state actors – and not sites of global significance as required by the Convention. Despite that, committee delegations collaborate among themselves to inscribe sites on the World Heritage List and keep imperilled sites off the In Danger List, often against the recommendations of the advisory bodies. In his recent book, Christoph Brumann comments that “the practice of agreeing to the wishes of member states has simply become too well-established.… The idea of solidarity and the multilateral protection of heritage valuable to all of humanity has been pushed to the background” (2021). The politically charged atmosphere at committee sessions leads to the conclusion that the governance model is no longer effective.

Shortcomings can also present opportunities. Weakened governance can make space for new actors and diverse voices. The exponential growth in virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic has connected a remarkable number of groups and people interested in World Heritage matters, ranging from academics, civil society associations, community groups, the private sector and so forth. So far, the World Heritage Committee has not granted official standing to any of them.

The 2017 establishment of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage (IIPFWH) provides a useful example of how governance is expanding beyond the States Parties and UNESCO. It is acknowledged that Indigenous peoples have long and deep connections to their lands and waters. They bring traditional knowledge and a holistic understanding of the unbroken bonds between culture and nature, a perspective that is important for enriching an understanding of World Heritage.

Yet in 2001, the World Heritage Committee flatly rejected a proposal to create a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples’ Council of Experts (WHIPCOE) whose purpose was to mobilize Indigenous voices and complementary competencies to protect and manage World Heritage sites. While some committee members acknowledged the special role that Indigenous peoples could play, others questioned the definition of Indigenous peoples and the relevance of such a distinction in different regions of the world. One committee member made the bold – and erroneous – statement that there are no Indigenous peoples in Asia! As a result, the proposal was not approved (UNESCO, 2001). Fast forward to 2017, when a group of Indigenous peoples took charge and created an independent organization called the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage (IIPFWH). The purpose of this standing global body is to engage with the World Heritage Committee during its meetings and represent the voices of Indigenous peoples with regard to the World Heritage Convention. Since the committee has no power over the creation of the IIPFWH, at the 2017 session in Krakow it simply took note of the establishment of the forum as an important reflection platform (UNESCO, 2017).

Other organizations have adopted the same model, including the independent World Heritage Watch, which mobilizes citizens and local groups to document problems at specific World Heritage sites and attempts to influence decisions through two-minute interventions at committee sessions. Among the many other organizations that attend committee meetings as observers are Greenpeace, Wildlife Conservation Society, Rivers without Boundaries, The Wilderness Society, the World Monuments Fund and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

A new NGO is on the horizon, a fledgling organization led by an informal coalition of concerned individuals. The newly minted OurWorldHeritage Foundation seeks to involve citizens, site managers, and civil society groups, as well as professionals, scholars, the private sector and emerging professionals, in the protection and conservation of cultural and natural sites. Throughout 2021, the initiative hosted twelve monthly virtual debates on critical issues facing World Heritage today, such as threats from climate change, overtourism, disasters and conflicts, as well as the listing process and new approaches to heritage conservation. The initiative hopes to mobilize a robust global network to renew the original spirit of the Convention and reinforce heritage protection for the next 50 years.

The fiftieth anniversary of the World Heritage Convention creates an opportunity to consider more inclusive governance and broader participation in the conservation of sites of importance to us all. Consider the familiar proverb observing that it takes a village to raise a child. Since each World Heritage site is precious, like a child, let us harness the energy of our global village – to use McLuhan’s phrase – to look after our children, these special places on this earth.


  • Brumann, C. (2021). The best we share: Nation, culture and world-making in the UNESCO World Heritage arena. Berghahn.

  • IIPFWH. (n.d.). International Indigenous Peoples Forum on World Heritage. Available at https://iipfwh.org/

  • McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press.

  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. McGraw Hill.

  • Meskell, L. (2018). A future in ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage and the dream of peace. Oxford University Press.

  • UNESCO. (2001). Report of the 25th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC-01/CONF.208/24, XV). UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/archive/2001/whc-01-conf208-24e.pdf

  • UNESCO. (2017). Decisions adopted during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC/17/41.COM/18, 41). https://whc.unesco.org/archive/2017/whc17-41com-18-en.pdf

4 Governance Challenges

I want to pick up on a word that Christina Cameron used: The 50th anniversary is an opportunity – an opportunity for correcting the current system. Opportunities are not just about correcting shortcomings. In this text, I present five recommended adjustments that we want to see over the coming years.

The first recommendation is a 180-degree shift toward the conservation and maintenance of all sites that are already inscribed, rather than emphasizing this politicized process of continuously nominating new sites. With that shift comes a re-emphasis of the importance of civil society. World Heritage Watch works on the premise that long-term monitoring is very effectively done by an engaged local and regional civil society. They can truly make a difference and contribute to the shift toward conversation and maintenance.

Our governance discussion is not just about adding to the rulebook. Rather, I was also wondering about a word that has been missing from much of our discussions – accountability. Having access, a voice, to be heard, to have a role and a narrative are all important, but not enough. We must consider accountabilities. One example of this lack of clear accountabilities is the case of Canaima in Venezuela, which was highlighted in the World Heritage Watch report this year. Canaima is a fantastic region becoming overrun with wildcat miners and where it is likely that the government is a perpetrator just as much as a State Party. We need to dedicate more thought to these conflicts in all those celebratory meetings that we will have over the coming year. Let me emphasize that enabling civil society to participate in a more structured way will not be enough. There also need to be more clearly defined accountabilities for responding to the issues raised by civil society actors.

With the challenge to make a 180-degree switch to conservation and maintenance also comes the second question, whether we are going to see an inflation in the nominations of new sites? If we do not want the nominations process to become inflationary over time, what could be done? I think it would be worthwhile over the coming months to think about an annual cap on new nominations using a sliding scale: instead of twenty a year, at first there should be a maximum of eighteen a year, followed by a maximum of sixteen the following year, and so on until there is a small number that can be maintained. Some very pragmatic and operationally poignant thought needs to be given to the total number of sites to be nominated – sites we really want to conserve and maintain in perpetuity.

The third recommendation is that the opportunities offered by modern communication must be exploited. These communication capabilities could be used to integrate World Heritage with national education systems in states that are party to the Convention, and provide them with routine access to modules on World Heritage. Such an education programme would contribute to the maintenance of sites “in perpetuity”. We must catch up with one generation of young people after another. A top-down declaration of love for culture is not enough; it has to permeate the education system. Today’s communication tools can facilitate this.

The fourth recommendation is related to a point that has been raised frequently: there is a need to reinforce connections between World Heritage and other UN goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Climate Agenda, the Biodiversity Agenda and Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights. For example, the World Heritage Committee could dedicate a regular segment of their sessions to improving these connections and the opportunities for sites that arise from them, instead of focusing on the nomination of new sites. These other programmes are often well-funded and could be of benefit for World Heritage, which leads to my final recommendation.

My fifth and final point is about money, which is always in short supply. The World Heritage Fund for 2021 has a total of $5.6 million. This level of funding is insufficient to build climate resilience in so many areas, let alone achieve any other goals. Either existing funds in the international system, such as the World Heritage Fund, need to be supplemented, or new funding sources need to be identified or created, for example, a World Heritage Global Environment Facility or a standalone World Heritage Resilience Facility. My point is simply: something needs to happen. If we do not put the money where the mouth is when objectives are declared, we will forever remain in financial trouble and fail to achieve a self-reliant World Heritage system.

These are my five recommendations:

  1. 1.

    A 180-degree shift to conservation and maintenance;

  2. 2.

    A gradual cap on the nomination numbers;

  3. 3.

    Developing educational systems that integrate World Heritage modules;

  4. 4.

    Greater integration of World Heritage with other UN programmes and goals (and their respective often well-funded programmes);

  5. 5.

    And finally, the need for a more suitably structured and adequately financed World Heritage Fund or the creation of a World Heritage Resilience Facility of some sort in one of the larger United Nations system institutions.

Addressing younger, emerging experts, I would like to make a final overall remark on the UN, the World Bank, and the regional development bank systems. If you are a student, study the whole system, study all the sources of finance, all the programmatic lines and chart them. Seek out ways the guidelines in each of these institutions and funding lines could be adapted to provide support for World Heritage. We did this at the World Bank in the 1990s. World Heritage often gets lost between funds and institutions that care for culture on the one hand, and institutions that care for the environment on the other. And when you come with the integrated World Heritage mandate – an intelligent and wonderful package – they say “we would love to do it, but we are not structured to do it”. So please look at these broader structures and make them work better for World Heritage in the next fifty years.

5 UNESCO and Global Governance

This brief contribution is a reflection on the contemporary challenges of global governance in World Heritage. The themes that emerge are deeply interconnected as a result of the history of UNESCO as an institution and the particular political evolution of the 1972 Convention. Briefly, I would like to touch upon issues comprising a set of five Cs: communities and rights, conservation, colonialism, conflict and civil society. Of course, more than a decade ago, UNESCO devised its own five Cs, which were designated strategic objectives for the World Heritage Convention: credibility, conservation, capacity-building, communication and communities. UNESCO judged those criteria to be central in sustaining the operations of the Convention, whereas my own selection is directed at the challenges to the workings of World Heritage out there in the world, to some crucial issues that can no longer be side-lined. I hope it can also provide a platform to begin a fuller reflection on the 50th anniversary of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

5.1 Communities and Rights

One major issue to be confronted in terms of governance is the disconnect between the World Heritage Convention and other long-standing United Nations conventions and declarations. This is particularly pertinent given the lack of harmonization between the 1972 Convention in regard to human rights, specifically in terms of Indigenous groups and their rights to heritage and involvement in the processes that guide inscription and conservation. After all, UNESCO was established to contribute to peace and security globally by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication so as to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Charter of the United Nations. However, today’s World Heritage regime has yet to fully incorporate the living aspects of heritage that would further necessitate rights of inclusion, access, use, and benefits. Many complain that even at the administrative level there are constraints. Indigenous representatives report that simple attempts to contact the World Heritage Centre go unanswered and that their concerns are not addressed. Since UNESCO is tasked with culture in the UN, this situation remains unsatisfactory. Other UN bodies have moved ahead; for example, there is a UN council that deals with Indigenous Peoples’ rights and business ethics. This suggests that there is an urgent need to strategize across agencies since a World Heritage inscription is often part of a broader system that can further marginalize communities and, in some cases, lead to human rights violations.

Conservation can easily be deployed to marginalize or force out local people, as recently happened at the World Heritage site of Hampi (India). This checkered conservation past escalated in 2010 when the Archaeological Survey of India took control of the Virupaksha Temple and Hampi Bazaar and declared its residents to be squatters and stripped them of any legal rights. The stalls, shops, restaurants and dwellings around the main temple were deemed illegal encroachments despite having their own living histories. Then in July 2011, bulldozers levelled shops, stalls and hotels, damaging the original medieval fabric of the bazaar in their wake. This is why many Indigenous communities are sceptical of UNESCO processes and the listing of sites. In dealing with their own governments, and with national bodies, the protectors and the perpetrators can be one and the same. This is one serious challenge and there is need to create a legal mechanism to hold states accountable in respect to rights. Several of us are working with international lawyers in the preparation of a policy document to be presented at the General Assembly of States Parties, focused on enforcing and respecting the legal obligations provided for by the 1972 Convention.

5.2 Conservation

It is hard to imagine what a world without World Heritage conservation might look like today. Almost certainly we would be witnessing even greater degrees of development and exploitation than are being challenged by multilateral agencies, NGOs, and civil society. From this perspective, UNESCO has proven highly successful in mobilizing external commitment and intellectual resources for its projects, World Heritage perhaps being the ultimate example. Indeed, it is hard to critique UNESCO’s nobility of purpose or desire to forge intellectual ties around the globe. However, its norms remain expert-driven and Eurocentric, while its treaties lack incentives for compliance and implementation amongst its Member States.

Today we are witnessing the never-ending pushback from States Parties on matters related to conservation and danger listing. States Parties privilege their socio-economic self-interest and will resist any decision that impinges upon those directives. States Parties are entirely entrepreneurial in their strategies to avoid danger listing, as seen with Venice, Vicenza, Vienna, London, and Liverpool. States perceive World Heritage as an instrument to pursue political objectives. Those with more political leverage and stronger lobbying capacities can exert greater influence on decisions in the World Heritage system. The question remains: If European nations are exerting their power through expansive lobbying, why should other states not do the same? There is a need to re-focus on conservation and communities in the governance strategies of World Heritage.

The World Heritage List ensures that a global public is more aware of conservation issues. Yet, the List creates a competitive arena for nationalist aspirations and rivalries where the potential economic developments that accompany listing increasingly outweigh preservation priorities. In the past decade, the List has been manipulated to secure and maintain the UNESCO brand in tandem with unhindered development, exploitation and commercialism. Countries such as Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have relentlessly marketed the UNESCO brand, taking full advantage of their long experience within the World Heritage system, at the expense of the conservation principles it represents. Poorer, less powerful nations are more readily criticized and have less bargaining power to fend off censure. Conservation, once so central to UNESCO’s mission and the raison d’être of the 1972 Convention, is now itself in danger.

5.3 Colonialism

The issues outlined above reveal much about the Eurocentric nature of World Heritage and how specific nations operate within UNESCO. In previous work with my colleagues, we have demonstrated that former colonial ties are still the strongest link in the support that States provide to each other in the World Heritage system. These ties play a key role in alliance building. It has to be acknowledged that the UN was built in the mid-20th century mainly to find ways for the victors of the war to keep their colonies. These colonial histories recall the particular European genealogy of international organizations from the League of Nations to UNESCO and their limitations to inculcate a culture of peace and to reconcile fundamentally different worldviews.

Successful World Heritage nominations are linked to the support not just of one or two neighbours but also of a wide array of countries spanning the globe. Moreover, these interdependencies are no longer confined to a single group of countries (e.g., the West or industrialized democracies) but have expanded to encompass a diverse range of economic regime types, religions, and cultures. Indeed, support for listing is more closely tied to former colonial relationships and trade partnerships than to regional, religious, or linguistic affiliations. In our analysis over more than a decade, we found that support for inscribing a site is more likely to occur if a member of the World Heritage Committee was a former colonizer of the country proposing a World Heritage nomination. This can be explained considering that several former colonies often nominate sites of their colonial past that are also historically linked with their former colonizer. This is part of a wider process of support that begins during the initial stages of the nomination process, with technical and/or financial assistance funnelled to former colonies through Fund in Trust agreements with UNESCO.

If we look at just one region that continues to experience the negative effects of colonial power relations, representatives from Africa increasingly complain that World Heritage processes are stacked against them. They have repeatedly denounced programmes like the Global Strategy, which failed to boost African regional representation but instead created a proliferation of new heritage categories, opportunistically used by overrepresented nations to inscribe more and more of their properties. They have also been vocal in demanding that African sites should not be targeted for the Danger List while those of more powerful countries avoid discussion and are subject to much less censure. African delegates have also deployed the rhetoric of UNESCO’s ‘Priority Africa’ in challenging the Convention guidelines, specifically advocating that a balance be struck between conservation and sustainable development in the African context. They have argued for increased use of African expertise in all aspects of the implementation of the Convention.

5.4 Conflict

Forged in the twilight of empire and led by the victors of the war and major colonizing powers, UNESCO’s founders sought to expand their influence through the last gasps of the civilizing mission. Beginning as a programme of reconstruction for a war-ravaged Europe, indeed, UNESCO was born of war and established in the wake of conflict with the dream of overcoming future conflict. But its establishment was bound up with the actions of nation states rather than the variety of actors and armed groups present today. What we are witnessing now is not only the difficulty of dealing with devastating conflicts that also impact material heritage but those proxy wars that play out in the World Heritage arena.

There are also political conflicts within the workings of the Convention. While outspoken about heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq by non-state actors, UNESCO has been relatively silent about the devastation in nations like Yemen. Neither the organization nor the majority of the Member States wants to criticize powerful nations at the forefront of such conflicts because some of these countries currently make large financial contributions, including Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, and the Gulf States. It is also important to keep in mind that we are not simply talking about long-term preservation of heritage sites, but we are talking about the fate of people. UNESCO’s response to the crisis in Mali has often been criticized for its singular approach to material destruction and reconstruction, since many observed that World Heritage seemed primarily concerned with stones.

I would further argue that the system is now faced with an increasing number of proxy wars being played out in the World Heritage forum. Moreover, the Convention can be used to gradually chip away at state sovereignty and borderlines or to reignite historic conflicts, some recent examples involve China and Japan, Thailand and Cambodia, as well as Turkey and Armenia. Additionally, these proxy conflicts are mobilized across the Conventions, and what happens in the context of the 1972 Convention can be later paid back within the scope of another convention, for example, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. We might see these as the consequences of predatory states, and such aggressive steps are overtaking previous commitments to intellectual and cultural cooperation. In this regard, the politicization of UNESCO is no different from other UN agencies, and heritage is no different from other political issues. Cultural and natural heritage might seem to operate only within the remit of soft power, but instead are often used in the political realm as a hard power.

5.5 Civil Society

The role of civil society has become a subject of discussion at UNESCO, particularly in their committee meetings and public-facing activities. Yet, as we have seen with the very limited Indigenous and local community participation, civil society actors have limited to no power within the system. NGOs and civil society organizations can bring their perspectives to participants in World Heritage Committee sessions, for example, but only after legally binding decisions have been taken. This has resulted in a type of courtesy performance that has no bearing on decision-making or the implementation of the Convention. It is important to keep in mind that there are also major interests involved under the umbrella of civil society, with big businesses, economic and political interests and money involved. There is a need to find adequate legal solutions to change the system from within; otherwise, if we are serious in addressing the needs of people and their fundamental rights, it will be difficult to get states to recognize those needs and supersede their own narrow self-interest.

Finally, there is more and more interest in global heritage, and there are now new approaches to engaging and mobilizing that concern. Individuals and organizations are bypassing UNESCO and starting their own international agencies. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), based in Switzerland, is a good example of a major foundation with expansive funding to work on heritage preservation and community-building worldwide, with many projects situated in the Middle East. We are seeing the proliferation of NGOs, whether in the United States or India, as well as across the Middle East and Europe. Endangered heritage has been a rallying point, as has Indigenous culture, the environmental movement and concerns for a more just, equitable and sustainable future.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proposed, the United Nations must also change and focus on delivery, not process, on people, not bureaucracy. For World Heritage that may entail not inscribing sites on a list at all, but rather allowing communities to determine their own paths. Nations still marginalize and persecute their minorities, so simply appealing to sovereign entities offers no solution. The measure of international oversight that World Heritage affords still yields considerable value. The past practices of working closely with nongovernmental agencies, universities, and other institutions might be further reinvigorated, although those organizations lack UNESCO’s reach and capacity to embrace the world and have their own agendas. In such a time of reduced circumstances, expanding networks and collaborations may prove the most expedient way forward.

6 Global Heritage Governance

Since the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972, UNESCO has been the leading agency for the creation of a global heritage framework. The Convention states that “(…) deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world”, and that “protection of this heritage at the national level often remains incomplete because of the scale of the resources which it requires”.

This government-centred framework implies that States Parties to the Convention are entirely responsible for its implementation. Hence, heritage protection relies on States Parties and their willingness to cooperate with one another and with UNESCO as a multilateral catalyst. Although States Parties are the primary World Heritage actors, there has been some, albeit limited, integration of the expert community and civil society into the operational structure of the Convention through the Advisory Bodies ICOMOS, ICCROM and IUCN, explicitly mentioned in the treaty. This inclusion provides some access for civil society, but it is not open-ended – the Advisory Bodies are numbered and named in the Convention.

In the decades following the Convention’s drafting, the diversity of actors involved in international politics increased considerably. Civil society organizations positioned themselves to contest state power in many areas and claim broader participation in decision-making processes. However, the increasing involvement of non-state actors in global governance arrangements was a challenge. Civil society actors undertook to remind States Parties about legal compliance with conventions they had signed up to, thus pushing for more people-oriented, inclusive and transparent processes.

In different political areas, civil society platforms and non-governmental organizations have made a place for themselves at the table, becoming relevant actors that would need to be taken into account when drafting, executing, amending or abolishing policies. For example, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are making their voices heard on contemporary climate issues; the World Social Forum’s deliberations are introducing possible structural reforms towards a more people-oriented world economy. Thousands of activists are contributing to the online documentation of human rights violations through social media. Although not using conventional frameworks, these examples highlight actors that have become influential players within a transforming system of global governance.

As in other areas, non-governmental organizations and civil society initiatives have been created in the World Heritage arena to fill the gaps of non-inclusive governance and provide critical support to the World Heritage Committee, World Heritage Centre and the wider system.

Only recently, however, has civil society been indirectly implicated as an actor in the World Heritage system. In 2002, the World Heritage Committee adopted the Budapest Declaration on World Heritage aiming to ensure the active involvement of our local communities at all levels in the identification, protection and management of our World Heritage properties.” The involvement of local communities was later formalized when a fifth “C” for “Communities” was added to the four other previously identified strategic objectives of the Convention – credibility, conservation, capacity-building and communication. These developments seem to affirm the role of communities in heritage governance and lend themselves to the perception of a potential opening for civil society involvement in the overall governance of the World Heritage framework. This principle was, however, not endorsed in the States Parties’ approach to decision making.

We wanted to understand how in this context, independent heritage initiatives can influence the system, and more broadly their role in global heritage governance. We looked at the two most relevant civil society-driven initiatives that address the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

World Heritage Watch is a German-based NGO that defines itself as the “global voice of civil society for world heritage.” The NGO’s main activities include two annual fora and a published report. They are intended to provide the World Heritage Committee and its advisory bodies with supplementary, civil society sourced and up-to-date information about World Heritage properties and their management. That information – if taken into account – is meant to enable the Committee to make better informed and less politically biased decisions. Therefore, the World Heritage Watch fora and report focus particularly on heritage sites that need urgent attention or are ignored by the Committee and Advisory Bodies.

World Heritage Watch facilitates its fora and produces its report in cooperation with members of its informal global network of civil society groups. It is important to note that the goal of World Heritage Watch is not to inspire civil society engagement with heritage but rather to work with groups that are not officially recognized and included in the decision-making processes but are engaged in heritage protection and management at the property level. The lobbying activities of World Heritage Watch are centred around gaining official access and recognition within the World Heritage system for civil society actors and their contributions to heritage protection. Of course, progress in this regard has been gradual and slow as the system is set up to exclude these actors.

World Heritage Watch also promotes solidarity between the various civil society groups in its global network. During the World Heritage Watch fora, these groups and organizations share information and expertise but also offer each other support. Thereby they can demystify the processes of the World Heritage system and increase public awareness of World Heritage. These clarifying activities are invaluable for the many civil society groups unfamiliar with the Convention’s modalities and the somewhat hermetic processes of its implementation.

OurWorldHeritage is an emergent NGO presenting itself as a civil society platform. The main goal of this organization is to foster a public dynamic that is strong enough to have an impact on the World Heritage system, directed towards a more inclusive and less politically dominated implementation of the 1972 Convention. The initiators of OurWorldHeritage are mainly concerned about the politicization of the World Heritage Committee and State Parties dedicating their resources to the nomination process rather than protecting their heritage (nominated or not). This neglect of conservation endangers what the Convention is supposed to preserve. More systematic and inclusive consideration of diversity and human rights is needed to modernize the system. These would need to include individuals and groups of all profiles with particular emphasis on the interests of Indigenous communities.

The founders of OurWorldHeritage have demonstrated an impressive capacity to gather a substantial number of young and emerging professionals as volunteers for the initiative. This was possible thanks to their personal, professional and academic networks and strong presence on social media. They also emphasized creating communication channels for people of different native languages to reach the broadest possible section of the public. Additionally, the organization has successfully involved established heritage professionals, such as site managers and IT, tourism and industry actors.

Rather than directly confronting the World Heritage system with its deficiencies in a non-constructive way, OurWorldHeritage has been generating thought-provoking debates and collecting substantive recommendations. This project, running through 2021, should produce a significant set of recommendations to submit to political authorities responsible for the World Heritage system.

The core principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is “leaving no one behind”, which means eliminating all forms of discrimination and injustice. Given the many excluded and marginalized communities in the World Heritage system, it is essential to consider how civil society actors can enhance the representation of communities in global heritage governance. The two examples of World Heritage Watch and OurWorldHeritage demonstrate that civil society actors can help make the political space more transparent. The two initiatives create spaces for heritage researchers, professionals, the public and anyone interested in heritage to counteract the discrimination, exclusion, domination and inequality that continuously emerges in the area of World Heritage. One of the main concerns of the initiatives is how politically biased and non-transparent decisions and processes impact the inclusiveness, equity and broader effectiveness of the World Heritage system and the global heritage governance it represents.

These two initiatives show why civil society organizations should be involved in shaping cultural heritage policy and illustrate how these organizations can expand their sphere of influence and promote democratic opportunities. Civil society actors in the World Heritage system can create the necessary leverage and power to mitigate the gap between the decision makers and those relegated from the decision-making process. Their work can build platforms where the voices of marginalized communities can be heard. They cast a light on the hidden dynamics of what goes on behind the scenes. As mediators, they put local communities’ opinions and concerns on the international stage and create entry points for the advice of heritage experts that do not have access to committee deliberations. These initiatives act as a point of convergence for all those voices that are ignored in the decision-making process.

The analysed initiatives are a qualitative representation of two different platforms that contribute to the same greater goal. World Heritage Watch and OurWorldHeritage have broadened the inclusion of civil society in a field in which – paradoxically – non-state actors have barely had a voice. Hopefully, the coming decades will see an increased dynamic of these and similar initiatives that can build a more solid grid of connections between initiatives, governments, experts, UNESCO staff and civil society at large.

Civil society actors are challenging and working to transform the dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion in all stages of heritage management and decision-making. As emerging experts in heritage, we believe it is vital to act towards a unified goal, a shared aspiration: diversity and equity through networking and the building of coalitions. To compel UNESCO and its affiliated state actors to more inclusive policies, it is necessary to create, mobilize, strengthen and empower civil society along with a more credible and transparent bottom-up approach in responding to a diversity of social actors. The principles and the objectives of the 1972 Convention can only be achieved through active participation and the shared responsibility of civil society.

Civil society platforms related to World Heritage still have a way to go and broader audiences to attract. We raise the following questions in order to stimulate a better understanding of the role we can all play in the system:

  • How do civil initiatives contribute to a fairer and more representative World Heritage system? How can they have an active role in correcting flaws and filling gaps?

  • How can initiatives cooperate to build a stronger network that allows for less fragmented civil society representation in World Heritage governance?

  • How can initiatives influence state decisions at a local, regional and international level?

The role of civil society within the heritage sector – and specifically within the World Heritage system – is an under-researched topic. It has not yet received the academic attention it deserves. Further research is necessary to provide insights into the current state of heritage governance and the roles of diverse actors and to suggest avenues that can lead to a more equitable future for global heritage governance.