Story | 15 Jul, 2019

The world’s biggest site, overruled advice, danger-listing a disincentive, mixed messages for Indigenous Peoples – IUCN’s key takeaways from the 2019 World Heritage Committee meeting

UNESCO’s annual World Heritage Committee meeting concluded on 10 July. After gathering input from the IUCN delegation he headed at the Committee, Peter Shadie, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, captures some take-home messages from the meeting.

The Republic of Azerbaijan was a remarkable host of UNESCO’S 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee, from the spectacular opening to the relaxed closing celebration. Its capital Baku, a city of the people, surprised and delighted as a rapidly changing place mixing old and new. The excellent Chair, H.E. Mr. Abulfas Garayev, ran the meeting like clockwork.

The IUCN delegation again performed above and beyond expectations delivering high-quality advice to the Committee and engaging with all aspects of the meeting. We always make the point IUCN is not just an advisor but a strategic partner to the World Heritage Convention and its capacity to deliver impactful conservation and outcomes for people. IUCN Members know well the power and potential of this international instrument.

Natural World Heritage scales up with landmark new sites

This year saw the exciting inscription of several impressively large natural sites. The French Austral Lands and Seas, a vast, magnificent oceanic island and marine system became the world’s largest World Heritage site. At a staggering 67 m ha, it is larger than mainland France. In Iceland an impressive 14% of the country was inscribed as the Vatnajökull National Park - dynamic nature of fire and ice. This site dramatically illustrates that our planet never sits still. 

We saw growing interest in ambitious proposals for large connected ecological systems, such the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China. The nomination was proposed as the first phase of a bigger more ambitious idea to create a serial site, with additional components to be nominated in a later phase. This system is particularly important for the East Asia Australia-Asia Flyway. IUCN recommended deferring the nomination to better understand the ecological dynamics and habitat connectivity of the site, however the Committee inscribed this first phase.  IUCN’s advice allowed the Committee to secure new commitments from China to protect this vital area. 

We also welcomed two new listings, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (Australia) and Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi (Canada), which have been driven by Indigenous Peoples’ aspirations regarding the linkages between land, people, culture and identity. The growing space for indigenous people to lead nominations is a source of hope.

Overturning technical recommendations becomes the new norm

Offsetting this very positive news were some concerning issues over the increasing disregard for the Advisory Bodies’ technical advice. Last year we witnessed the first ever decision by the Committee which turned a recommendation from our sister Advisory Body on culture, ICOMOS, to not inscribe a site on the World Heritage List into an inscription. This so-called “triple jump” straight to inscription, ie without even considering deferral or referral, took 46 years to come about. It happened twice last year and once again in Baku. Let us hope these do not become standard practice.

We now see the Committee modifying the majority of Advisory Body recommendations (83.7%) to push decisions to be more favourable for nominations and softer on conservation commitments. Unchecked, this widely acknowledged politicisation of decision-making can lead to severe credibility concerns and undermine the Convention.

Danger-listing a disincentive?

The List of World Heritage in Danger is meant to be a constructive mechanism giving urgent support to the most threatened sites. However, it seems many Committee members perceive danger-listing as a discouragement for States Parties. Of the three danger-listing recommendations by IUCN, only one was adopted – the Gulf of California in Mexico, with the State Party’s agreement. The same advice had been rejected in previous Committees, despite the dramatic situation of the vaquita porpoise, one of the world’s 100 most threatened species, whose population is now close to extinction. On the other hand, the Committee did not take into consideration the recommendation to inscribe the Sundarbans (Bangladesh) or Lake Ohrid (North Macedonia and Albania following extension) on the Danger List despite a critical state of conservation.

One legitimate concern with danger-listing is that it does not trigger significant direct funding to support sites in trouble. While in many cases it has generated additional international assistance, there is no explicit and direct financial incentive to danger-listing and many countries see it as unhelpful. Supporting sites in danger should be the Convention’s first duty, and we must restore that mission.

What is the Committee saying to Indigenous Peoples?

The Committee continues to send mixed messages on issues related to the engagement of Indigenous Peoples in the World Heritage Convention. On the one hand, very positive advances have occurred through the establishment of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum (which was increasingly active in Baku) – through the recognition of free, prior and informed consent in the Operational Guidelines; and through operationalising the sustainable development policy including rights within World Heritage frameworks. On the other hand, many Committee members tried to push towards listing a site for which the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights had expressed serious human rights concerns. This debate exposed the divisions within the Committee on this sensitive issue and the need for States to put rights at the heart of what World Heritage should stand for.

Seeing the big picture

I am often asked how do the Advisory Bodies feel when their recommendations are so routinely overturned. It is a good question. Indeed it can be hard to stay positive when so much diligent technical work appears to be given little consideration, thus giving the impression that improving the situation on the ground for sites is not a priority.

One member of the IUCN delegation made a parallel with the kind of exhaustion experienced by healthcare professionals "– particularly those working in palliative care. In these environments, staff are particularly at risk, because no matter the quality of healthcare, no matter the level of compassion, the outcome is always death. We are confronted with a similar kind of helplessness. No matter our efforts and the quality of our advice, we continue to see many of the most threatened sites deteriorate.”

It has been particularly disheartening this year to hear references to sustainable development as a reason to water down conservation standards. At a time when the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) calls for transformative change to protect fast deteriorating ecosystems and biodiversity, the world needs better development models. Natural World Heritage sites can and do provide these models. They contribute to many Sustainable Development Goals, and their conservation should not be perceived as at odds with development needs.

The World Heritage Convention remains one of the most effective instruments for nature conservation, and we can only strive to maintain and restore its reputation. Seeing this bigger picture is what keeps us positive. It is why, as a team and as an organisation, we will never give up on quality and belief in the World Heritage Convention’s true potential.


Video records and official documents from UNESCO's 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee are available on:

IUCN at the 43rd World Heritage Committee meeting: