News Release

UNESCO world heritage -- the limits of solidarity in a world of nation-states

New book suggests the treaty states' efforts to promote their own national interests have become increasingly uncompromising

Book Announcement


When the UNESCO member states adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972, they were motivated by an ambitious vision: shared responsibility for protecting sites identified as being of universal significance - regardless of any national interests. How this has worked in practice is the topic of Christoph Brumann's book The Best We Share: Nation, Culture and World-Making in the UNESCO World Heritage Arena, published in March 2021. He shows how, from the beginning, the dominance of the Global North has stood in the way of the idea of a global community of equal nations. Since the 2010 meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Brazil, the treaty states' efforts to promote their own national interests have become increasingly uncompromising.

Participant Observation: The View from Inside a Global Institution

Between 2009 and 2015 Christoph Brumann, Head of Research Group in the Department 'Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia' at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI), took part in five of the annual two-week sessions of the World Heritage Committee. In addition to first-hand observation of the meeting activities, Brumann also conducted over 40 interviews with experts and analysed countless documents produced in connection with the World Heritage List. "For me as an anthropologist, participation in the meetings and the many informal conversations that took place during breaks, at dinner or during receptions offered the most important insights," Brumann notes. "The covert implications and nuances in the meeting documents can only be interpreted correctly by observing the actors and experiencing the dynamics of the discussions."

Criticism of Eurocentric Understanding of Culture: Expanding the List

Since the 1980s, the World Heritage designation has become ever more prestigious and desirable and today it is one of the best-known cultural emblems. And its importance for regional economies and tourism is correspondingly great. But this increasing attention given to the List has been accompanied by constantly growing criticism of the processes by which the World Heritage Committee awards this label. Brumann explains: "The undeniable overrepresentation of palaces, cathedrals, and historic towns in Europe ultimately led to the adoption of the Global Strategy for a Balanced, Representative and Credible World Heritage List. This document called for expanding the list to include sites of everyday culture." In particular, the resolution aimed to give states in the Global South the opportunity to have a share in the success of the World Heritage label.

Brasilia 2010 as a Turning Point: The End of the Solidarity Paradigm

"As a result of these developments, the World Heritage list has become much more vibrant and diverse. Alongside Yosemite, Chichén Itzá, and the Cologne Cathedral, it now includes the grave and other sites associated with the last paramount chief of Vanuatu, Indian mountain railways, wooden peasant churches in the Carpathians, and social housing estates in Berlin", Brumann points out. But the criticism of the selection process continued: in the 2000s, the proposals of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), two institutions with a key advisory role at the meetings of the World Heritage Committee, were a source of displeasure and contention on multiple occasions. During the 2010 meeting in Brasilia, the recommendations of the ICOMOS and IUCN were rejected as never before in the history of the World Heritage Committee. The clash was set off by the recommendation to retain the Galápagos Islands on the List of World Heritage in Danger. However, Ecuador, to which the islands belong, was able to mobilize other states in the committee to reject the recommendation, thereby successfully upholding its own national interests.

The North-South Divide: The World Heritage Committee's Loss of Authority

Brumann demonstrates in his book how, following this decision, many additional expert recommendations were rejected in the continued course of the session, as representatives of the participating states engaged in lobbying efforts on their own behalves, won over allies, and traded support. "The character of the meeting was felt by some participants to be a low point in the history of the World Heritage Committee. Indeed, there was a lot of pent-up resentment in many states of the Global South and a desire to teach the experts a lesson. This development must be understood as an expression of an unspoken North-South conflict," says Brumann. But even after this open demonstration of power by the Global South, the distribution of World Heritage status has not seen any substantial change. Brumann: "The rich European countries have much better possibilities for responding to changes in the selection process. And it is evident that the expanded criteria for inclusion in the World Heritage List have also had little effect on the overrepresentation of the Global North." The fact that the World Heritage Committee now seldom makes decisions against the will of the represented nations leads to a dominance of larger and more influential states, even though some from the Global South are now included. "A decision like that of removing Dresden from the World Heritage List in 2009 would be inconceivable now. Since then, the practice of agreeing to the wishes of member states has simply become too well-established. Based on the assurance, of course, that one's own wishes will likewise not meet with resistance. The idea of solidarity and the multilateral protection of heritage valuable to all of humanity has been pushed to the background," Brumann concludes.

Original publication: Christoph Brumann, The Best We Share. Nation, Culture and World-Making in the UNESCO World Heritage Arena, 316 pages, Berghahn, 2021.


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