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“We’re at a crunch point” – Minister of State Böhmer calls for reforms and better financing

24.06.2015 - Interview

Interview with Minister of State Maria Böhmer, currently serving as chairperson of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. First published in DAS PARLAMENT No. 26-27 on 22 June 2015.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee will meet in Bonn from 26 June to 8 July. You are its current chairperson, and have called for reform. One of your criticisms is that decisions on sites to be included in the World Heritage List have become ever more “politicised”. Can you give some examples?

The Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage stipulates that before being included in the list, a property must be evaluated by one of the advisory bodies – ICOMOS for cultural properties, and IUCN for natural heritage properties. The outcome of such an evaluation is then submitted to the World Heritage Committee in the form of a recommendation. In the past, the Committee normally followed the recommendations. But at the last few sessions, the World Heritage Committee ignored or outvoted many of these recommendations, because some countries were so insistent on getting their properties onto the list. As a result, decisions were taken which have been strongly criticised, not just within the World Heritage Committee, but also publicly. To counter this, the World Heritage Committee decided at its 2014 session in Doha to establish a working group on reforms. Following my election as the new chairperson of the Committee, I have assumed the leadership of this working group with a view to returning to the basic principles of the World Heritage Convention. A World Heritage site must be of outstanding universal value for humanity, and not just for a single country.

What specific reforms would you like to initiate?

We are working on three fronts: we want to reform the advisory bodies, the World Heritage Committee and our funding. For one thing, the work and decision-making processes of the advisory bodies must be made more transparent. The bodies should make contact with the countries that have nominated properties for the World Heritage List sooner, should explain the criteria for inclusion on the List, and help the countries meet these. Secondly, the decisions taken by the World Heritage Committee should once again be based more closely on the expert recommendations made by the advisory bodies. The working group is unanimous on this point. Funding is, however, still at a crunch point. The World Heritage Fund has some 5 million US dollars at its disposal each year. Around 80 % of this money is spent on evaluations, both of nominated sites and existing World Heritage sites. There are now 1007 World Heritage sites and not enough money to maintain them all. This is an imbalance. That’s why I am pushing so hard for new funding.

Are you calling for higher contributions from the UNESCO states parties?

Higher compulsory contributions are not the solution. The poorer countries, which are moreover under-represented on the World Heritage List, consider them to be discriminatory. I have therefore suggested that the richer countries should bear the advisory bodies’ evaluation costs of approximately 25,000 US dollars themselves. Evaluations have so far been free of charge to candidate countries.

Or you could save money by reducing the number of nominations each year from 40 ...

If we get more money in, we can keep the numbers up. I would very much like to do that, since we have relatively few World Heritage sites in some regions of the world, for example in Africa. There are still many hidden treasures which could be brought to light. If we don’t get more money, we will have to reduce the number of nominations. I don’t want to go down that road, but that’s the crossroads we are now at.

World Heritage sites in Iraq and Syria have been destroyed or are at immediate risk from the “Islamic State” (IS) terrorist militias. The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution introduced by Germany and Iraq, saying that such destruction should be considered a war crime. I’m sure IS is laughing up its sleeve ...

The smile might be wiped off IS’s face. The resolution, which was also supported by the Islamic countries, underscores that the barbaric destruction of cultural property has nothing to do with religion, but is an attempt to destroy the cultural identity of entire peoples. All UN member states have pledged to institute criminal proceedings in such cases, for example against IS fighters who return to their home countries. But the destruction of cultural objects is not the only issue. They are also being ripped from their contexts and sold to finance terrorist activities. We have already banned trade in cultural objects from Iraq and Syria in the EU. But a ban in Europe alone is not enough. That’s another reason why this UN resolution is so important. The Federal Government Commissioner for Culture Monika Grütters is also going to submit a bill on the protection of cultural property, which will introduce stricter standards of proof for the import of cultural objects.

In 2009, the Elbe valley in Dresden was deprived of its World Heritage status due to the construction of a new bridge. Does the World Heritage Committee need more sanctions at its disposal in order to protect world heritage?

That was a very bitter lesson for Germany, but we’ve learned from it. That’s why early contact between the advisory bodies and local authorities is so important, so that the loss of World Heritage status can be avoided. Cologne cathedral was also on the red list, but early consultation worked there. The threat of loss of status is, I think, a sufficiently effective mechanism for protecting our world heritage. In Australia it has, for example, led to a groundswell of support – including political and financial support – for preserving the Great Barrier Reef.

The interview was conducted by Jörg Biallas and Alexander Weinlein. Reproduced by kind permission of DAS PARLAMENT

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