Six years after our foundation, World Heritage Watch is known and recognized worldwide as the voice of civil society for the World Heritage, both by the statutory bodies of the World Heritage Convention – the members of the World Heritage Committee, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and its Advisory Bodies IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM – and the wider heritage community. We are the only NGO in the world that deals exclusively with UNESCO World Heritage.
The WHW network now includes more than 170 NGOs, organizations of indigenous peoples, informal groups and individuals from all continents – from northern Canada to Easter Island, from Tasmania to the Serengeti, and from Brazil to Kamchatka. We introduce many of these groups to the working modalities of the Convention through intensive coaching. A separate Indigenous Peoples Permanent Forum on World Heritage has emerged from the WHW network. Our facebook page has more than 2,000 followers.
Since 2015, World Heritage Watch has organized an International Civil Society Forum with over 50 participants each year immediately prior to the sessions of the World Heritage Committee (in Bonn, Istanbul, Kraków, Bahrain and Baku). The World Heritage Centre and Advisory Bodies have always participated with high-level observers, and information about threats to specific World Heritage Sites was presented.
In 2019 and 2020, World Heritage Watch also organized such Forums at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in January / February, at the suggestion of the convention bodies, in order to make it easier for them to participate and to provide our information at an early stage so that it can be included in the draft Decisions of the Committee. The forums prior to the World Heritage Committee sessions are also continued in order to discuss strategic questions and to coordinate our interventions in the session.
Each year, World Heritage Watch publishes NGO reports from all over the world in our World Heritage Watch Report, which is read by officials, experts, scholars and journalists worldwide and can be downloaded free of charge from our website. They are also read by people at the sites, which helps to give local communities encouragement and strength. In addition to updates on known cases, new cases are added every year that were previously unknown to UNESCO. Some of our reports come from sites to which UNESCO itself has no or only limited access, e.g. Libya, Southeast Turkey or Tibet. Altogether we have reported on the situation at 105 sites on all continents.
Since 2015, World Heritage Watch has attended World Heritage Committee sessions every year and has made great strides for the participation of civil society. While we were given the floor only once in 2015, we were given the floor on every agenda item in 2017 – but only after the decisions had been adopted. However, since 2018 we have had the floor before the decisions were taken. At the 2019 session, we intervened a total of 13 times and also represented NGOs that could not be present.
In future we will seek more publicity in order to draw attention to some undesirable developments in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention such as the politicization of the decisions, the trivialization of the world heritage list, the global imbalance of sites, the lack of funding, the ignoring of Committee decisions by the State Parties, insufficient technical guidelines for the evaluation, nomination and management of the sites, insufficient participation of the population in the management of sites, etc.
We have also made progress in making the World Heritage a subject of development cooperation. We have approached the German Ministry for Development Cooperation, indicating to them that almost without exception the threats to the sites are not so much due to a lack of commitment to conservation, but rather to a lack of commitment to appropriate sustainable development, with benefits shared by the local population. The long-term viability World Heritage Sites relies on local communities having a real stake in their site’s protection. Without such an environment, World Heritage Sites cannot be protected in the long term.
In our office we regularly employ interns from all over the world who are enrolled in the master’s program in World Heritage Studies at the BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg. At the WHW Office they are exposed to the reality of safeguarding the World Heritage Sites.
Collectively we were able to record a number of concrete successes for the sites. These include:
- On the basis of our report, the Romanian Parliament has asked the government why there is no management plan for the “Dacian Fortresses in the Orastie Mountains” World Heritage Site. In the meantime, the work for this has been started.
- Based on the recommendation in the WHW Report, the government of Azerbaijan has decided to nominate the Azerbaijan mud volcanoes as a World Heritage Site.
- The Stonehenge Alliance believes that concerted lobbying efforts (presentation at the NGO forum, meetings with member states of the World Heritage Committee, publication in the WHW report, press interviews) together make a great impression not only on the committee but also on the government Of Great Britain. Through intervention at the World Heritage Committee meeting, we were able to significantly improve a decision.
- It was only through us that UNESCO found out about the terrifying conditions in Sukur (Nigeria), Svanetia (Georgia) and the Medina of Tunis (Tunisia), because the governments concerned did not report about them for more than ten years.
- Many draft decisions of the World Heritage Committee have now taken up our information to such an extent that we prefer them to be adopted without discussion.
- We have organized first steps of support for a civil society proposal in Ukraine to nominate the Desna river valley as a world heritage.
The World Heritage Convention will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022. This date will certainly be picked up by the media, and will be an opportunity to reach milestones, review achievements and also identify challenges. UNESCO itself and many State Parties will hold ceremonial events.
Our goals for 2022
are to achieve full participation rights of civil society in the implementation of the convention, to make all processes transparent and, if not to solve the pressing problems of the convention, to put forward strategies for their solution. These include pushing back geopolitical interests, avoiding a banalization of the world heritage list due to too many nominations, adopting and enforcing strict guidelines for site boundaries and buffer zones, securing the funding of World Heritage Sites, banning agrochemicals in World Heritage Sites and implementing sustainable development in their environment. We will take advantage of the 50th anniversary as a rare opportunity that must not be missed to realize the basic idea of the convention – that the world heritage is the common heritage of all humanity, for which all humanity shares responsibility.