In 1994, twenty-four years after the adoption of the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the World Heritage Committee acknowledged that the World Heritage List has become loopsided.
That year, there were 304 cultural sites compared to only 90 natural and a mere 16 mixed sites that were inscribed in the World Heritage List. Not only that, but the majority of the cultural sites were all located in Europe.
The World Heritage Committee openly questioned this lack of balance in both the type of property inscribed as well as in the geographical representation. For that reason, the Committee came up with the Global Strategy for a Balanced, Representative and Credible World Heritage List.
Purpose of the Global Strategy
The World Heritage Committee realised the importance in getting a more balanced representation of the World Heritage List. Many governments, particularly from less developed countries outside Europe, have probably already voiced their dissatisfaction as to why so many sites in Europe are on the World Heritage List, and so few elsewhere. Is a site listed based on its merit, or is it because someone somewhere is diligent in preparing the dossier for World Heritage submission?
There is so much to the culture and natural treasures of the world, the World Heritage Committee wants to ensure that the really deserving ones have a chance to be listed. For this to happen, the Committee stands to look outside the strict definition of heritage, and works towards recognising and protecting sites which deserve protection, because these sites, on their own merit, demostrates outstanding universal values. In other words, the Committee wants to inscribe sites not because it is considered a country's heritage, but because is so outstanding that it should be protected for the world.
As the World Heritage Committee cannot on their own reach out to protect sites located in sovereign countries, they have to work with these countries, to get them to become State Parties to the Convention, that is to say, willing partners of UNESCO who will come up with their list of sites to be considered, particularly in the categories and geographical locations that were under-represented.
The Over Representated
In the study conducted by ICOMOS between 1987 to 1993, it was shown that sites that fall under the categories of Europe, historical towns and religious monuments, Christianity, historical perids and "elitist" architecture (that's rich people's houses as opposed to those of the working class) were all over represented as World Heritage Sites. On the other hand, living cultures, particularly traditional cultures, were like rare creatures on the list.
The study by ICOMOS also pointed out the reason why there was this under-representation of some categories. It seems to be that the whole process to get a site listed is exceedingly difficult for some countries, especially the under-developed ones, which have limited resources to identify, document, evaluate, and thereafter come up with management plans and strategies. On the other hand, developed countries with the expertice and experience in submitting their sites for inscription breeze through with the listing of many sites.
Where do we go from here
Today, another 26 years has passed since the launch of the Global Strategy. In that time, another 39 countries have signed the World Heritage Convention, bringing the total number of State Parties to 178. Those who have submitted their list of sites to UNESCO, according to the required format, has also risen from a mere 33 to 132. To achieve a more meaningful distribution of inscribed sites, UNESCO has also promoted under-represented categories such as cultural landscapes, itineraries, industrial heritage, deserts, coastal-marine and small-island sites, with the hope that in future, the list will cover a wider spectrum of places that exhibit outstanding universal value to humanity.
Most of the world-famous sites are already on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There is nothing that can be done about having so many sites in Europe - we certainly cannot remove them from the list.
Just as animals and plants become extinct, so do cultures, languages, and many other intangible aspects of life. The World Heritage Committee is conscious that the World Heritage List is not representative of everything it hopes to preserve and pass down to future generations. It can only urge governments to world with them, to exhibit a keenness in preserving what they have, so that the cultural and natural wealth of this earth can be sustained for our children.