“The Eurocentric Nature of the World Heritage List” – Interview with Corinne Geering
“World Heritage sites” are defined as “heritage of mankind as a whole” by UNESCO in the World Heritage Convention from 1972. European countries have by far more sites than for example African or Latin American ones. Are the standards by which sites can become a “World Heritage Site” eurocentristic?
Yes, one might even claim that the concept of ‘mankind as a whole’ is a Eurocentric concept, since it operates on the notion of an all-encompassing universalism. As far as the Eurocentric nature of the standards for World Heritage inscription is concerned, this is also apparent in aspects other than the overrepresentation of Europe in comparison to other world regions. In addition to uneven representation of geographical areas, this would also refer to an imbalance between cultural and natural heritage, between monumental and vernacular architecture, and to the marginal status of intangible heritage. The World Heritage Committee recognised these problems already back in 1994 when it launched the Global Strategy for a Balanced, Representative and Credible World Heritage List that sought to ‘fill the gaps’ in the List. In the context of the study leading up to the Global Strategy, we may even find explicit reference to “avoid Eurocentrism” in correspondence between UNESCO staff. Thus, since there has been wide-held agreement on the Eurocentric character of the World Heritage List, the dispute has focused more on the questions of what Eurocentrism actually entails and most importantly, how the stated imbalances can be resolved. So far, the measures taken by the World Heritage Committee have not been as successful as desired in achieving a balanced, representative and credible World Heritage List.
How can we make sure that the process by which sites are rewarded as special by the UNESCO are fair?
This addresses the question of whether there are objective standards for recognising a site as ‘World Heritage’ and how such standards may be defined. This is not only a question of Eurocentric bias in the sense described above, but also of how politicised or depoliticised the discussion about nominations for inclusion in the World Heritage List should be in order to guarantee a ‘fair’ nomination process. Naturally, opinions on this question diverge among the different state parties, while it is predominantly Western states who express the wish for a less politicised discussion. However, on-going international conflicts do tend to come up during sessions of the World Heritage Committee. In addition to this, the process of submitting a nomination is a costly endeavour for the respective member state and preparation easily consumes a few years. Thus, a fair process is ultimately impossible without improving other inequalities, particularly in relation to unequal distribution of economic and other resources.
Could the progressive opening of former socialist states towards the UNESCO’s cultural policy be considered as a wish to coming to terms with the past? What meaning could you give to this advancement?
The heavy engagement of the Soviet Union in UNESCO’s cultural policy in the late 1980s, of course, cannot be understood without reference to the processes of perestroika and glasnost’. Public interest in the past, also the negative past, was relevant, but these processes were aimed at leaving behind the preceding period and at reforming communism. For example, the ratification of the World Heritage Convention by the delegations of the Soviet Union, the Byelorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR in 1988 was, at least partly, motivated by the desire to leave behind the era of stagnation. The advancing nuclear disarmament constituted another important aspect, as may be seen in the expressed wish by the Soviet foreign minister to overcome past divides, particularly in light of the fact that the United States of America had withdrawn from UNESCO in 1985 out of protest. Engagement in other programmes, such as the World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997), was characterised by increasing participation of non-governmental actors and a wide-spread interest for international cultural cooperation among different groups in the Soviet Union. However, while a new perspective on the past is certainly relevant, I would be hesitant to frame it as part of a process of ‘coming to terms with the past’, not least since this is a loaded notion. I would differentiate the opening towards UNESCO’s cultural policy by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s from further changes in cultural policy, also in other formerly socialist states, from the early 1990s onwards.
Corinne Geering focuses on world, culture heritage and cultural policies. She studied the way the Soviet Union used to protect its own national heritage and asked herself why the Soviet Union finally ratified the World Heritage Convention of the UNESCO (in 1988). You can find more information about her here. She will host a table on “Educational ‘Aid’ during the Cold War” together with Constantin Katsakioris at the next WeberWorldCafé.