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World Heritage Sites and indigenous peoples

World Heritage Site Australia

The World Heritage Convention governs the identification and protection of tangible, immovable world heritage (i.e. ‘sites’) considered to be of “outstanding universal value”. A large number of the recognized World Heritage sites are located in the territories of indigenous peoples. The existence and role of the indigenous peoples living in the respective sites is, however, often not adequately reflected in relation to nomination and management of World Heritage Sites.  

Indigenous participation in the World Heritage Commitee

The implementation of the World Heritage Convention is governed by the World Heritage Committee, an intergovernmental Committee which consists of 21 States Parties to the Convention. In contrast to other international environmental agreements, there are no mechanisms in place to allow for meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention at the international level. 

At the national/site level, the situation differs from one country to another and from one World Heritage Site to the next. In many World Heritage Sites, indigenous participation in decision-making and in the management of their lands and territories is absent or severely limited.

World Heritage Indigenous Peoples' Forum demands an IP Council of Experts

In 2000, a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples' Forum assembled in Cairns, Australia expressed its concern about the “lack of involvement of Indigenous peoples in the development and implementation of laws, policies and plans, for the protection of their holistic knowledge, traditions and cultural values, which apply to their ancestral lands within or comprising sites now designated as World Heritage Areas”.

The Forum urged the World Heritage Committee to create a “World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts” (WHIPCOE) as an Advisory Body to the Committee. While this initiative was supported by several States Parties as well as the three existing Advisory Bodies, the Committee in 2001 voted against the proposal.

UN Declaration brings renewed attention on indigenous participation

The adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 has resulted in renewed attention to the issue of indigenous participation in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

Both the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have called on the World Heritage Committee to review and revise its working methods and Operational Guidelines, with a view to ensuring that indigenous peoples are adequately consulted and involved in the management and protection of World Heritage sites, and that their free, prior and informed consent is obtained when their territories are being nominated and inscribed as World Heritage Sites.

Human rights bodies call for enhanced participation of indigenous peoples

In November 2011, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a decision which reiterates the earlier calls of the UN Permanent Forum and The UN Expert Mechanism to revise existing procedures and Operational Guidelines, and calls on the World Heritage Committee to “consider establishing an appropriate mechanism through which indigenous peoples can provide advice to the World Heritage Committee and effectively participate in its decision-making processes.”

40th Anniversary

In 2012, UNESCO celebrates the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention under the theme “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Local Communities”. The opening ceremony took place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 30 January 2012. Events are being organized around the world throughout the year to mark the occasion.