PRESERVING WORLD CULTURAL AND NATURAL HERITAGE SITES
The Threat of Man-made and Natural Disasters and Humanity's Moral Obligation to Provide Needed Protections
A number of World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites have been ravaged by a variety of natural and man-made disasters. The Indian Ocean tsunami was the most recent example of a disaster that caused, not only an appalling loss of human life and wholesale destruction of communities, but damage of several sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, including the Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications in Sri Lanka and at the Mahabalipuram and the Sun Temple of Koranak, in India.
The World Heritage Convention
As early as 1972, UNESCO, realizing the urgent need to protect world heritage sites from conflicts of interest, neglect, wars and natural hazards, took the initiative of holding the First World Heritage Convention (WHC). Its purpose was to initiate an international program that would secure the commitments of participating nations to a protective mission for the recognition of the importance and universal value of World Heritage sites.
The Convention set meticulous guidelines for a program of cataloguing, naming, and conserving sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Subsequently, to ensure the success of the program, an enormous amount of effective action was undertaken by participating member nations, the World Heritage Committee, its Bureau and its Secretariat, as well as by the associated consultative bodies.
World Heritage Sites at Risk
As the list of heritage sites kept growing, the World Heritage Committee realized that a more effective action plan was required. The member nations themselves needed to take a more active role that would involve continuous and systematic monitoring of how well these cultural and natural sites were being preserved and protected. The implementation of such expanded action plans required an increase in the level of financial and technical resources. In spite of past concerted efforts, many world heritage sites remained endangered, not only by natural disasters but by inadequate management, under funding, pollution and, tragically, by numerous armed conflicts. For example, there was massive destruction of World Heritage monuments by the war in Dubrovnik. In Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed 4th and 5th century Buddhist monuments in Bamiyan Valley.
Destruction of 4th and 5th century Buddhist monuments in Bamiyan Valley by the Taliban
The war in Iraq destroyed priceless Omeyan and Abaside monuments of the Assyrian and Babylonian era. There was an appalling plundering of works of art from Iraqi museums - which Jacques Chirac rightfully characterized as “crimes against humanity”. About 9 000 to 10 000 works of art were stolen from the Baghdad Museum. The plundering of the Iraqi works of art was well planned in advance. Although the Coalition forces took precautions not to bomb historic sites, they did destroy a large number of them later, a proof of ignorant vandalism and savage revenge. There was no respect for the great civilization that existed in that part of the world and its historic and cultural significance for mankind.
A large number of Omeyan and Abaside cultural monuments were destroyed by U.S. and Coalition Forces during urban clashes during the war in Iraq.
Even without civil strife or wars, several other world heritage sites were severely threatened by other global threats, such as environmental degradation and increasing population pressure. For xample, environmental air pollution and human encroachment were possible elements detrimental to the preservation of Taj Mahal and of the three World Heritage monuments in Agra. Protecting such great works of human heritage and culture were real, urgent and required immediate action.
Agra Fort in India, another World Heritage site threatened by neglect
and urban encroachment.
Realizing these problems UNESCO expanded the mandate of the Convention and developed a “List of World Heritage in Danger”. This list was to be instrumental in protecting sites identified as threatened by serious dangers. Under certain conditions, listed sites could obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund. Thus, thanks to this foresight and joint labor, many sites and properties were protected, restored and, indeed in many cases, saved from total destruction. However, in the following years, the number of sites on this list kept on growing and unfortunately there were no sufficient funds to go around. To raise revenue that could provide more resources for preservation, WHC encouraged tourism. However, it was also realized that, in some instances, the corresponding increase in tourist traffic could also have severely damaging effects.
Another problem that hindered preservation of endangered sites was population explosion and encroachment. One of the fundamental issues that arose in many of the countries where such great works of cultural heritage sites exist was the tension between economic development and historic preservation. Industrial development and associated pollution posed a great threat to both urban monuments and natural parks alike. Several Heritage sites were also threatened by extensive warfare. Thus, for several countries that did not have adequately means, protecting and maintaining their inscribed cultural sites became a great logistical political and economic problem.
Humanity's Moral Obligation to Protect World Heritage Sites
The need to protect World Heritage sites cannot be overemphasized. In a world in constant change, calls for the conservation and protection of threatened Heritage sites should never be silenced. Admittedly, it may be difficult sometimes to defend an undertaking to protect human culture. Such action may be viewed as yielding relatively few tangible or immediate "returns" on investments - particularly in countries with emerging economies. However, the real challenge is that of promoting a global awareness in the importance of preserving a cultural inheritance whose loss would be irreparable, for precisely the reason that its value cannot be easily quantified or defended. The roots of the past and of the human ingenuity are embedded in works of nature or culture that represent an incalculable spiritual resource for humanity, that should never be neglected as irrelevant or viewed as not sufficiently important. Clearly, there must be a global recognition of common human heritage that merits special attention and protection.
The Shore Temple at Mahablipuram in India was partially inundated by the tsunami of 2004 but fortunately there was no serious damage.
The task of safeguarding the world's cultural and natural heritage treasures is an inherently challenging one. In a world that seems increasingly torn by divisiveness and conflicts of political ideologies and religions, the importance of the non-tangible values of the human aspiration for beauty and meaning - as exemplified by works of art and culture - needs to be constantly affirmed, since this may be one of the common denominators that unite us as human beings on this very finite planet. The fundamental strength of culture and beauty - regardless of its diversity - is a universal dimension of outstanding value to humanity that must be shared and preserved for present and future generations. Cultural identity is the common heritage for all mankind and needs to be recognized, respected, cherished, promoted and protected.
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