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Old Damascus, Syria: Dating back to the third millennium BC, Damascus is one of the longest continually-inhabited cities in the world, but much of its ancient centre is threatened by development. (Reuters)

In 1991, Dubrovnik, a fairytale fortress of Titians, Renaissance palaces and lemon-scented cloisters, was shelled by Serb and Montenegrin forces. Appalled by the siege of a city described by Lord Byron as the “pearl of the Adriatic”, the international community sprung into action.

Unesco, the United Nations organisation responsible for education, science and culture, called meetings, co-ordinated fundraising, and mobilised armies of experts. Not long after the dust of war had settled on scores of razed buildings, Croatia began restoration work. In a matter of a few years, Dubrovnik, designated as a World Heritage Site in 1979, rose from the ashes.

That’s how the system is meant to work. Since its inception, 37 years ago, Unesco World Heritage has become a global brand whose seal is slapped on the planet’s most precious places. The Taj Mahal is on the list, alongside the Pyramids of Giza and the Grand Canyon. These are the man-made and natural wonders considered to be of such outstanding value to humanity that their importance transcends borders, politics – and even economics. They are deemed deserving of the ultimate layer of protection – to be placed beyond the reach of polluters, developers, looters, bombers, and the ravages of time. The World Heritage seal is a guarantee of preservation.

At least that’s the perception. But now many within the conservation community are convinced Unesco is failing. They say the moribund organisation is teetering on its once sound foundations as its principles and priorities crumble under the weight of bureaucracy and outside influence. The World Heritage emblem has come to represent a grandiose marketing tool – fodder for “things to see before you die” coffee-table books.

Just last week, a row erupted over St Kilda, a remote, Unesco-protected island in the Outer Hebrides. When plans were announced to open a visitor centre on nearby Harris, St Kilda’s local guardians, the National Trust for Scotland, feared an influx of World Heritage Site-bagging tourists could damage the site. Elsewhere in the world, less scrupulous custodians desperate for tourist dollars campaign to be included in Unesco’s sacred list without preparing for the inevitable hordes.

At its worst, its most vocal critics say, World Heritage is a lame duck in a straitjacket, incapable of protecting the world’s truly endangered places.

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The Independent

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