The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) is a successful global instrument for the protection of cultural and natural heritage.
The World Heritage Convention was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference at its 17th session in Paris on 16 November 1972. The Convention came into force in 1975. In August 1974, Australia became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention.
The World Heritage Convention aims to promote cooperation among nations to protect heritage around the world that is of such outstanding universal value that its conservation is important for current and future generations.
It is intended that, unlike the seven wonders of the ancient world, properties on the World Heritage List will be conserved for all time.
States that are parties to the Convention agree to identify, protect, conserve, and present World Heritage properties. States recognise that the identification and safeguarding of heritage located in their territory is primarily their responsibility. They agree to do all they can with their own resources to protect their World Heritage properties.
They agree, amongst other things, as far as possible to:
- 'adopt a general policy that aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programs'
- undertake 'appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage'
- refrain from 'any deliberate measures which might damage, directly or indirectly, the cultural and natural heritage' of other Parties to the Convention, and to help other Parties in the identification and protection of their properties.
The World Heritage Convention is administered by a World Heritage Committee, which meets annually and consists of 21 members elected from those States that are parties to the Convention. Elections are held every two years and members are generally elected for four years. Australia has been a member of the Committee on a number of occasions. In October 2007, Australia was elected as a member of the Committee for a four year term.
The Committee's main tasks are to:
- decide on the inscription of new properties on the World Heritage List
- discuss all matters relating to the implementation of the Convention
- consider requests for international assistance
- advise State Parties on how they can ensure States meet their obligations under the Convention to protect World Heritage Properties
- administer the World Heritage Fund.
The Committee is supported by a small secretariat, the World Heritage Centre, which is a part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) based in Paris, France.
The Convention establishes a list of properties that have outstanding universal value, called the World Heritage List. These properties are part of the cultural and natural heritage of States that are Parties to the Convention.
At June 2016 there were 1031 sites on the World Heritage List. The List includes 802 cultural properties, 197 natural properties and 32 properties that meet both cultural and natural criteria.
Only two sites have ever been removed from the World Heritage List. These were the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (Oman) which was delisted in July 2007, and the Elbe Valley, Dresden which was delisted in 2009
The World Heritage Committee prepares and publishes a List of World Heritage in Danger that includes World Heritage sites threatened by serious and specific dangers, such as:
- development projects
- the outbreak or threat of armed conflict
- natural disasters.
The Convention seeks state parties consent prior to any 'in danger' listing, however in cases where a site is threatened and there is no effective government in place, the Committee may reach a decision on its own. Each time that the Committee makes a new entry on the List of World Heritage in Danger, it is required to publicise the entry immediately.
A trust fund, the World Heritage Fund for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage of Outstanding Universal Value (the World Heritage Fund), is established under the Convention. The Fund is financed by contributions from state parties and contributions from private organisations and individuals.
Funds are used when state parties request assistance to protect their World Heritage-listed sites, and to meet the urgent conservation needs of properties on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
State parties can request international assistance from the World Heritage Fund for studies, provision of experts and technicians, training of staff and specialists, and the supply of equipment. They can also apply for long-term loans and, in special cases, non-repayable grants.