The sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are the most valuable monuments, the most significant historical cities, the most beautiful landscapes and the most breathtaking natural wonders and ecosystems of our planet. Nowhere else can we learn more about the history and diversity of the earth, its peoples, and their cultural achievements. Because their significance is so great that it transcends national boundaries, they are considered to be the heritage of all humankind, and it is for that reason that the community of nations has decided to protect them by binding international law.
Since its adoption in 1972, the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (“World Heritage Convention”) has been an enormous success: It has been adopted by 193 countries, thereby achieving almost universal validity.
Many of the sites now under protection would not have been preserved had they not been inscribed, monitored and supported by UNESCO and its Advisory Bodies. Often the international attention and enormous prestige associated with the World Heritage status have been critical in saving properties from the forces of destruction and neglect.
And yet, in spite of all efforts and successes, the preservation of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage remains a continuing challenge. A growing number of world heritage sites are endangered by development pressure, mass tourism, armed conflict, resource extraction, climate change or construction activities, and by neglect and poor management.
With decreasing financial resources in many countries, the needs for monitoring, preserving, safeguarding, supporting and protecting the sites at times exceed the capacities of UNESCO and national governments. Recognition has grown that the more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites cannot be monitored and protected in the long run without the active involvement of the wider population.
Time has long come for civil society to join hands with UNESCOs World Heritage Mission by actively identifying threats and addressing causes. The World Heritage must no longer be relegated to government offices and experts alone. Local communities, civil society and indigenous peoples should be supported by concerned citizens to protect their world heritage.
Responsibility for cultural and natural heritage belongs, in the first place, to the people who live on or in the vicinity of a site. Safeguarding World Heritage Sites will be possible in the long term only by providing local communities with economic, educational and cultural benefits and thus creating a sense of ownership.
With these needs and existing mandates in mind, non-governmental organizations, civic and academic initiatives, and concerned individuals from across the world have come together to establish an international non-profit network called World Heritage Watch (WHW). Our task is to work with UNESCO and its Advisory Bodies, and to complement their efforts for the effective implementation of the World Heritage Convention and the safeguarding of World Heritage Sites.
World Heritage Watch is the first NGO focusing exclusively on World Heritage sites, both cultural and natural, and both inscribed and listed tentatively. The potential of an international NGO network to raise worldwide attention will improve chances that the concerns of local and indigenous groups will be addressed, and thus encourage them to get involved. In the process, local people will increase their knowledge about the sites and their management, and build a more sustainable local support for World Heritage sites.
The UNESCO World Heritage sites are not only the heritage of one nation or state. As the common heritage of all humankind, they are the nuclei of an emerging world civilization. Each one of them belongs to all of us, and we have a shared responsibility for them.