Endangered Sites Discussed During Heritage Meet

Delegates from 21 countries on Monday discussed the fate of endangered World Heritage sites during the first full day of meetings at the World Heritage Committee’s 37th session in Phnom Penh.

Due to conflict and other factors such as economic pressures, several cultural and natural sites that are protected under the World Heritage Con­vention have recently come under threat.

Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, left, and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An attend a press conference on Monday during the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee. (Siv Channa)
Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, left, and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An attend a press conference on Monday during the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee. (Siv Channa)

Mali, where conflict broke out last year, is one such country. In July 2012, the U.N. Security Council took action regarding the systematic obliteration of Timbuktu’s mosques and ancient manuscripts by Islamist militants. As it condemned the rebels’ human rights violations, the council also called on all parties to protect the country’s unique heritage.

Mali may become a test case as to measures that the international community can take to protect an endangered site, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, which helps implement the convention, said Monday.

“We cannot agree as acceptable that, nowadays, in our century, we would see such heritage that has withstood thousands of years irrespective of profound movements in history…be destroyed,” she said.

Unesco is now looking into whether World Heritage destruction in Mali could constitute a crime that could be investigated at The Hague, Ms. Bokova said.

Natural sites are also increasingly under threat, said Susan Brown of the World Wildlife Fund who addressed the delegates on Monday.

“As a conservation organization, we thought that World Heritage protection was the gold star. These are the most outstanding, special places in the world, and countries often ask for them to be listed…. We had a bit of a nasty shock in recent years because they’re not no-go zones anymore,” she said in interview.

There are about 200 natural sites in more than 100 countries and threats against them vary from region to region, said Marc Patry, program specialist at Unesco’s World Heritage Center.

In the Caribbean and Mexico, he said, “Sites are under a lot of pressure from tourism. Everybody wants to build the nicest resort in or next to the site.”

“In Africa, it’s more development-related threat. The countries…may have inscribed their sites before they knew what resources they had. Now they realize that some sites are lying over very rich oil or mineral deposits,” Mr. Patry said.

The World Heritage Committee is due to review the situation of several endangered sites today. The session, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, runs through June 27.

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