Lava flows to the sea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (left) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. Spectacular view of Many Glaciers Hotel at Glacier National Park (right) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.
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World Heritage Sites in the United States

How the World Heritage Convention Works

By Gustavo Araoz, President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, better known as the World Heritage Convention, is an international pact or treaty through which ratifying nations agree to cooperate in the conservation and protection of their cultural and natural heritage sites, and particularly those that have been determined to possess outstanding universal value.

Yellowstone National Park is a World Heritage Site. National Park Service. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.Yellowstone National Park is a World Heritage Site.
National Park Service

Springing from an American idea, the drafting of the Convention was many years in the work, and became effective and open to ratification in 1973, which the United States was the first to do in December of that year. Since then 190 countries have followed suit, making the World Heritage Convention one of the most ratified international treaties in the history of the world. During the more than four decades of the Convention’s existence, the United States has been a constant and active participant in the implementation of the Convention as is clearly exemplified by the 22 American properties inscribed in the World Heritage List.

The Convention is administered by the World Heritage Centre within the Paris-based United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but all decisions concerning its implementation are taken by the World Heritage Committee, a group of representatives from 21 countries (or States Parties to the Convention) that are elected by the General Assembly of all States Parties that takes place every two years. The Committee meets every year in different parts of the world at the invitation of one of the members of the Committee. Three organizations are designated in Article 13 of the Convention as Advisory Bodies to assist the Committee on its decisions. They are the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (the Rome Centre), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).  These organizations were undoubtedly selected because of their unique global presence as well as their inter-disciplinary and multicultural nature.

Recognizing that the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, belongs primarily to the State, the Convention calls on each State Party to ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the fullness of its cultural and natural heritage. Specifically, Article 5 of the Convention calls for each country to protect its full heritage inventory by

Interior of Independence Hall, a World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy of the Independence Hall National Historical Park.Interior of Independence Hall, a World Heritage Site.
National Park Service
  • adopting a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and by integrating the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programs;
  • setting up within its territories, where such services do not exist, one or more services for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage with an appropriate staff and possessing the means to discharge their functions;
  • developing scientific and technical studies and research and by working out such operating methods as will make the State capable of counteracting the dangers that threaten its cultural or natural heritage;
  • taking the appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage; and
  • fostering the establishment or development of national or regional centers for training in the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage and by encouraging scientific research in this field.
Aside from the general directives above, the World Heritage Convention is better known by the three specific instruments it provides the international community to achieve its goals: The World Heritage List, the List of World Heritage in Danger and the World Heritage Fund.

The World Heritage List
Defined by Article 11 of the Convention, the World Heritage List is a compendium of natural and cultural properties voluntarily nominated by States Parties and that the Committee has determined to have an adequate protective structure and possess Outstanding Universal Value in accordance with one or more of the ten criteria it has adopted:

(i) represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
(ii) exhibit 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;
(iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
(iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage(s) in human history;
(v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
(vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria) ;
(vii) contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
(viii) be outstanding examples 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;
(ix) be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
(x) contain 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.

Petroglyphs at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Petroglyphs at Chaco Culture National Historical Park,
a World Heritage Site
National Park Service

The first six of the above criteria are used to assess the outstanding universal value of cultural properties, and the last four are applicable to natural ones. As of 2014, 1,007 properties in 161 countries had been inscribed in the List, 779 of them cultural; 197, natural; and 31 of them, a mix of the two. However, the number grows constantly with each annual cycle of inscriptions.

ICOMOS and IUCN play a central role in the evaluation of nominations of properties, leading to making recommendations to the Committee regarding all inscriptions in the World Heritage List. ICOMOS is responsible for assessing nominations of cultural properties, while IUCN is in charge of natural ones. Mixed properties nominations, put forward under both natural and cultural criteria, are evaluated jointly by the two organizations. Both IUCN and ICOMOS maintain a World Heritage Unit consisting of highly specialized technical and professional staff in their respective secretariats in Switzerland and France.

In the United States, US/ICOMOS, the American branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites/ICOMOS has always worked closely with the National Park Service and the State Department by advising on the establishment of the U.S. Tentative List of sites to be nominated, and in the development of nomination dossiers for American cultural sites. The evaluation of nomination dossiers, of which about 40 are received each year, focuses on two aspects of the nomination: the determination of the property’s outstanding universal value, and the effectiveness of the existing protective system.

Outstanding universal value is assessed through the comparative analysis of the nominated property with similar places in its own region and all over the world. To do so, ICOMOS and IUCN have developed a broad process of confidential consulting with the members of it networks of internationally recognized experts on the type of property being nominated, who must also be knowledgeable about the application of the ten significance criteria.  ICOMOS relies heavily on the advice of its members, in particular those in its 30 International Scientific Committees, while IUCN does the same by consulting its many networks of experts.

Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.Statue of Liberty, a World Heritage Site in New York City
National Park Service

Assessing the effectiveness of the existing protective system has been a growing requirement of the Convention, even though at times the Committee opts to exercise various levels of leniency in this respect and moves ahead to inscribe the site. The process for evaluating existing protection is far more complex than the determination of outstanding universal value, and requires a field visit by an expert from IUCN and/or ICOMOS to each property nominated. The experts selected have to be knowledgeable not only about heritage conservation, but also about the requirements that are detailed in the World Heritage Operational Guidelines, where desirable levels of protection are clearly articulated. Once on site, a number of issues are looked at, to include the state of conservation of the place; the nature and intensity of development pressures and other threats or risks; the effectiveness of the existing protective legislation, the management and security system, and of the visitors control, risk preparedness and interpretation plans; the appropriateness of the property’s conservation and caretaker staff and budgets; the adequacy of the official boundaries to ensure that all elements needed to express the outstanding universal value are within the protected area;  the involvement of local communities and other stakeholders in establishing the property’s intangible attributes and traditional uses where they exist; and when needed, the effectiveness of a properly sized protective buffer zone.

The final step in developing the recommendations to be made by the Advisory Bodies regarding inscription is the convening of a carefully selected international panel of experts, whose decision is final. Panel members supplement and inform their own expertise by carefully studying the full nomination dossier, the expert evaluations of significance, the field missions reports and any other assessments received from qualified members.  These panels are carefully composed of members representing a broad variety of the world regions and cultures, who have the necessary expertise on the  mix of categories of sites nominated each year (such as archaeology, underwater heritage, cultural landscapes or urban centers). When highly particular types of sites are also included in the year’s nominations, experts from  specialized sister organizations, such as TICCIH (the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage) and DOCOMOMO (International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement), are invited to join the panel.  IUCN and ICOMOS stage their panels separately, but exchange panel experts as needed, not only for mixed nominations, but also for special types of sites where natural and cultural resources are inextricably intertwined, a situation that has been on the increase in the past years.

Red Eagle Mountain in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Red Eagle Mountain in Waterton-Glacier
International Peace Park, a World Heritage Site
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York SHPO

At the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the Advisory Bodies present their recommendations according to four options defined in the Operational Guidelines. The Committee is free to accept, reject or alter any of the recommendations received from the Advisory Bodies:

  • Inscribe: Inscriptions are recommended when all the requirements of the Operational Guidelines have been met.
  • Refer: Referrals are recommended when the outstanding universal value has been determined but some minor elements of the protective structure need correcting. The nomination can then come the following year.
  • Defer: Deferrals are recommended when there is insufficient information to determine the outstanding universal value or when there are major shortcomings in the protective systems. Deferrals require that once the corrective measures are in place, they be field-verified through an additional field evaluation before the nomination returns to the Committee.
  • Do Not Inscribe. Non-inscription is only recommended when the property has been determined to possess no outstanding universal value.

The aim of the World Heritage List as pertains to cultural properties is to achieve an equitable representation of sites dating from all pre-historic and historic eras, resulting from all the world’s extinct and living cultures, and illustrative of all human interactions with the natural environment. To achieve this, the Committee has summarized its strategic objectives under in 5 C’s, which are Credibility, Conservation, Capacity-Building, Communication and Communities.

The List of World Heritage in Danger
The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action through international cooperation. The World Heritage Committee can inscribe on the List of World Heritage in Danger properties whose protection requires major operations and for which assistance has been requested. As of 2014, there are 46 properties in the List of World Heritage in Danger, most of them located in Africa and the Middle East. One endangered property in the United States is the Everglades, in Florida.

Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and industrial development, and unchecked tourist development are some of the reasons for inclusion in the In Danger List.  Sites in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Kosovo and Afghanistan have been listed as such because of the actual and potential destructions brought about by civil unrest and armed conflict. The Buganda Tombs in Uganda was listed after a massive fire destroyed its major building. Liverpool in the United Kingdom underwent the same fate in 2012 because of the threats resulting from a massive redevelopment project of its historic docklands. At the request of the United States, Everglades National Park has been listed because of the threats of pollution, altered hydrology and urban encroachment, and Yellowstone Park was once listed because of the threats to the aquifer resulting from mining activities upstream.
Temple of the Sun formation in the 
Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Temple of the Sun formation in the
Carlsbad Caverns National Park,
a World Heritage Site
National Park Service

A mechanism also exists for emergency simultaneous inscriptions in the World Heritage List for sites where threats are imminent, usually as result of armed conflict or a natural catastrophe, as was the case with the City of Bam in Iran after it suffered a devastating earthquake. The listing of Bam was very effective in mobilizing international efforts in the recovery process.

As expected, there is a huge range of possibilities between a state of perfect conservation and being in imminent danger. It is fully within the spirit of the Convention to foster international cooperation to prevent troublesome situations from becoming worse. For this reason, the Committee relies on the Advisory Bodies to track the state of conservation of all sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. Every year ICOMOS and IUCN, working closely with the professional staff of the World Heritage Centre, prepare and present to the Committee hundreds of State of Conservation Reports, which are compiled from information received directly from the States parties as well as though the membership networks of both organizations.

When the Committee assesses any of these situations to be particularly grave, it has the ability to propose assistance to the concerned State Party by suggesting that it invite technical monitoring missions that are the joint responsibility of the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies. Independently, the Advisory Bodies also provide support to States Parties in need, which in the case of ICOMOS usually occurs through its National Committees.

The World Heritage Fund

The World Heritage Fund is made up of compulsory and voluntary contributions received from States Parties, as well as from private donations.  In accordance with Article 16 of the World Heritage Convention, it is the General Assembly of States Parties to the Convention which determines, every two years, the amount of the contributions to be paid to the World Heritage Fund by the States Parties in the form of a uniform percentage of its total contribution to the regular budget of UNESCO.

The World Heritage Fund is expanded through donations given by countries to support specific projects with defined goals and objectives. These are known as Funds-in-Trust and at the present time the countries making such voluntary contributions include Belgium (through the Flemish Region), France, Japan, the Netherlands and Spain.

Yosemite National Park, a World Heritage Site, is located
in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Yosemite National Park, a World Heritage Site, is located
in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range.
National Park Service

The World Heritage Fund provides about US$4 million annually to support activities requested by States Parties in need of international assistance.  Until Congress banned payment of its dues to UNESCO, about a quarter of this amount used to come from the contributions of the United States. The Advisory Bodies also advise the Committee on the allocation of such funds. While the intent of the Fund is for the World Heritage Committee to allocate financial support in accordance to the urgency of requests, with priority being given to the most threatened sites, the sad reality is that that because of its scarcity, it is used to support the growing administrative costs of hosting sessions of the Committee and to reimburse the Advisory Bodies for the expanding services requested of them.

ICOMOS is deeply committed to the World Heritage Convention by continuing to serve as advisor to the Committee and to the States Parties responsible for administering its implementation. From the broader perspective of ICOMOS, however, a major goal of the Convention that needs greater attention is for the excellence in management achieved for World Heritage Sites to trickle-down to the full cultural heritage inventory of all nations

Gustavo Araoz
President of ICOMOS
August 2014