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The World Heritage Convention

The World Heritage Convention (“Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”) is an international treaty adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1972. With 188 States Parties as of November 2011, it is today one of the most widely ratified international legal instruments. The main purpose of the Convention is the identification and collective protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage considered to be of “outstanding universal value”.

The Convention embodies the idea that some places are so special and important that their protection is not only the responsibility of the States in which they are located, but also the duty of the international community as a whole.

The Convention only concerns tangible, immovable heritage (i.e. ‘sites’). These can be cultural sites (such as sacred sites, monuments or buildings), natural sites (such as biodiversity hotspots or outstanding geological formations), or mixed cultural/natural sites.

The World Heritage Committee

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. The Committee keeps a list of sites which it considers as having outstanding universal value (“World Heritage List”), and oversees that these “World Heritage Sites” are adequately protected and safeguarded for future generations.

The World Heritage Committee can only inscribe sites on the World Heritage List following a formal nomination by the State Party in the territory of which they are situated.

A large number of the recognized World Heritage sites are located in the territories of indigenous peoples, however, the existence and role of the indigenous peoples living in the respective sites is often not adequately reflected in the decisions of the World Heritage Committee. 

The World Heritage Committee is supported by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (the secretariat for the Convention), and three official Advisory Bodies: the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).

ICOMOS and IUCN provide the World Heritage Committee with evaluations of nominated cultural and of natural sites respectively, and both provide evaluations for mixed cultural/natural sites. They also monitor the state of conservation of existing World Heritage Sites and carry out monitoring missions for this purpose. ICCROM provides the Committee with expert advice on conservation of cultural sites, as well as on training activities.

Details on the processes for the nomination and inscription of World Heritage Sites, monitoring of their state of conservation, the obligations of States Parties and the role of the Advisory Bodies can be found in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The Operational Guidelines were developed by the World Heritage Committee and are periodically revised. 

Sessions of the World Heritage Committee

The World Heritage Committee meets once a year for two weeks, usually in June or July. Additionally, extraordinary sessions are sometimes held. The venue of the Committee’s sessions changes from year to year. See the Committee’s website for details.

At its 35th session in 2011, the Committee adopted a decision which “encourages States Parties to respect the rights of indigenous peoples when nominating, managing and reporting on World Heritage sites in indigenous peoples’ territories”.