The purpose of the World Heritage Convention is to enhance worldwide understanding and appreciation and international cooperation for heritage conservation. It is also to recognize and preserve a relatively small number of exceptional natural and cultural properties around the world that have been formally determined to possess outstanding universal value to humanity. The United States was a primary architect of the World Heritage Convention and led the efforts to develop the treaty establishing the Convention and was its first signatory when the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty 95-0 on October 26, 1973. The World Heritage Convention has been viewed by many as the global expression of the American National Park ideal. The United States has continuously maintained a leadership role in the work of the Convention, including serving multiple terms on the World Heritage Committee, the governing body of 21 countries elected from among the nations that have signed the Convention. The U.S. is not currently a member of the committee.
In terms of nations, the World Heritage Convention, with 189 signatories, is the most nearly universal treaty for cultural preservation and nature conservation in human history. World Heritage Sites are extremely exceptional cultural and natural properties nominated voluntarily by signatory nations, which are then approved by the World Heritage Committee. As of March 2012, there were 962 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List in 157 countries. It is not to be expected that World Heritage listing will ever be common. The criteria are exceptionally demanding.
In the U.S., there are currently 21 World Heritage Sites, notably including Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Independance Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. Two transborder sites are listed jointly with Canada.
U.S. Domestic Legal Effects of World Heritage listing
Nomination to and inclusion in the World Heritage List represents the formal pledge by the United States to itself and to the international community to take all steps necessary to protect a property, including regular reports on its condition, but U.S. and state laws and regulations affecting the property are not superseded or abrogated. Rather, World Heritage listing affirms existing U.S. law. Domestic legal and management structures that will assure the protection of the property are a prerequisite for inscription. The World Heritage Committee does not have judicial authority to compel a national government and site managers to take specific actions. The Committee has only advisory authority and the power of persuasion. The Committee’s only real sanction is deletion of a site from the World Heritage List—which, as of 2012, has happened only twice in the 40-year history of the Convention.
Some Benefits of World Heritage Listing
• The publicity that accompanies World Heritage listing and the placement of World Heritage plaques has led to increased tourism at almost all sites, often to the benefit of the economies of surrounding areas.
• International organizations and national governments and foundations often give priority to World Heritage Sites in providing financial and technical assistance. In recent years, such sources of assistance have been quite substantial when compared to the limited amounts provided by the World Heritage Committee through the World Heritage Fund. This has happened in substantial part because World Heritage listing attests not only to the international importance of the site, but also to the commitment of the nation in which it is situated to protect it.
• Cooperative efforts to assist World Heritage Sites have not attracted nearly as much publicity as the controversial debates over how to protect a few threatened sites, but it is clear that World Heritage listings have encouraged international cooperation and assistance and outcomes beneficial to World Heritage Sites, especially at lesser known sites and in countries needing financial resources or information exchange to care for their World Heritage sites.