A World Heritage Site is a landmark which has been officially recognized by the United Nations, specifically by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance, and they are legally protected by international treaties. UNESCO regards these sites as being important to the collective interests of humanity.
More specifically, a World Heritage Site is an already classified landmark, which by way of being unique in some respect as a geographically and historically identifiable piece is of special cultural or physical significance (such as either due to hosting an ancient ruins or some historical structure, building, city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument, or mountain) and symbolizes a remarkable footprint of extreme human endeavour often coupled with some act of indisputable accomplishment of humanity which then serves as a surviving evidence of its intellectual existence on the planet. With the intent of its practical conservation for posterity, which otherwise could be subject to risk from human or animal trespassing, owing to unmonitored/uncontrolled/unrestricted access or threat owing to local administrative negligence, sites are listed and demarcated by UNESCO to have been identified or recognised as a protected zone. The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Programme administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 UNESCO member states which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
The programme catalogues, names, and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common culture and heritage of humanity. Under certain conditions, listed sites can obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund. The program was founded with the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972. Since then, 192 state parties have ratified the convention, making it one of the most adhered to international instruments.
As of July 2016, 1052 sites are listed: 814 cultural, 203 natural, and 35 mixed properties, in 165 states. According to the sites ranked by country, Italy is home to the greatest number of World Heritage Sites with 51 sites, followed by China (50), Spain (45), France (42), Germany (41), India (35), Mexico (34) and United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories (30) .
In 1954, the government of Egypt decided to build the new Aswan High Dam, whose resulting future reservoir would eventually inundate a large stretch of the Nile valley containing cultural treasures of ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. In 1959, the governments of Egypt and Sudan requested UNESCO to assist their countries to protect and rescue the endangered monuments and sites. In 1960, the Director-General of UNESCO launched an appeal to the Member States for an International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. This appeal resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, as well as the salvage and relocation to higher ground of a number of important temples, the most famous of which are the temple complexes of Abu Simbel and Philae. The campaign, which ended in 1980, was considered a success. As tokens of its gratitude to countries which especially contributed to the campaign's success, Egypt donated four temples: the Temple of Dendur was moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Temple of Debod was moved to the Parque del Oeste in Madrid, the Temple of Taffeh was moved to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands, and the Temple of Ellesyia to Museo Egizio in Turin.
The project cost $80 million, about $40 million of which was collected from 50 countries. The project's success led to other safeguarding campaigns: saving Venice and its lagoon in Italy, the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan, and the Borobodur Temple Compounds in Indonesia. UNESCO then initiated, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a draft convention to protect the common cultural heritage of humanity.
The United States initiated the idea of cultural conservation with nature conservation. The White House conference in 1965 called for a "World Heritage Trust" to preserve "the world's superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry". The International Union for Conservation of Nature developed similar proposals in 1968, and they were presented in 1972 to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Under the World Heritage Committee, signatory countries are required to produce and submit periodic data reporting providing the World Heritage Committee with an overview of each participating nation's implementation of the World Heritage Convention and a "snapshot" of current conditions at World Heritage properties.
A single text was agreed on by all parties, and the "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972.
The Convention came into force on 17 December 1975. As of June 2016, it has been ratified by 192 states, including 188 UN member states plus the Cook Islands, the Holy See, Niue, and the Palestinian territories.
A country must first list its significant cultural and natural sites; the result is called the Tentative List. A country may not nominate sites that have not been first included on the Tentative List. Next, it can place sites selected from that list into a Nomination File.
The Nomination File is evaluated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union. These bodies then make their recommendations to the World Heritage Committee. The Committee meets once per year to determine whether or not to inscribe each nominated property on the World Heritage List and sometimes defers the decision to request more information from the country which nominated the site. There are ten selection criteria – a site must meet at least one of them to be included on the list.
Up to 2004, there were six criteria for cultural heritage and four criteria for natural heritage. In 2005, this was modified so that there is now only one set of ten criteria. Nominated sites must be of "outstanding universal value" and meet at least one of the ten criteria.
- "represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and cultural significance"
- "exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design"
- "to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared"
- "is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history"
- "is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change"
- "is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance"
- "contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance"
- "is an outstanding example representing major stages of Earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features"
- "is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals"
- "contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation"
UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site provides prima facie evidence that such culturally sensitive sites are legally protected pursuant to the Law of War, under the Geneva Convention, its articles, protocols and customs, together with other treaties including the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and international law.
Thus, the Geneva Convention treaty promulgates:
"Article 53. PROTECTION OF CULTURAL OBJECTS AND OF PLACES OF WORSHIP. Without prejudice to the provisions of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 1954,' and of other relevant international instruments, it is prohibited:
(a) To commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples;
(b) To use such objects in support of the military effort;
(c) To make such objects the object of reprisals."
There are 1,052 World Heritage Sites located in 165 States Party. Of these, 814 are cultural, 203 are natural and 35 are mixed properties. The World Heritage Committee has divided the world into five geographic zones which it calls regions: Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Russia and the Caucasus states are classified as European, while Mexico and the Caribbean are classified as belonging to the Latin America & Caribbean zone, despite their location in North America. The UNESCO geographic zones also give greater emphasis on administrative, rather than geographic associations. Hence, Gough Island, located in the South Atlantic, is part of the Europe & North America region because the government of the United Kingdom nominated the site.
The table below includes a breakdown of the sites according to these zones and their classification:
* Because many sites belong to more than one country, duplicates exist when counting them by country and within a region.
Despite the myriad documented positive impacts that World Heritage listing has provided in terms of promoting conservation, the UNESCO administered project has also attracted criticism for under-representation of heritage sites outside Europe and disputed decisions on site inclusion. A sizable lobbying industry has grown around the awards; World Heritage listing has the potential to significantly increase lucrative tourism revenues to selected sites. Site listing bids are often lengthy and costly putting poorer countries at a disadvantage. Eritrea seeking to promote the modernist architecture of Asmara reflects one such example.
In 2016 media reports highlighted that the Australian Government had actively lobbied to have criticism of Great Barrier Reef conservation efforts removed from a UNESCO report titled 'World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate'. The Australian Government's actions were in response to concerns about the negative impact that an at risk label could have on tourism revenues at a previously designated UNESCO World Heritage site.