UNESCO: Preparing for the annual session of the World Heritage Committee


I began my internship at UNESCO (the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization) almost two weeks ago, and it has been a highly rewarding experience so far. I’ve been placed in the World Heritage Centre, a specialized body within UNESCO that coordinates the World Heritage program. I’ve encountered many challenging bureaucratic hurdles, but everything has gone well so far and I’m having a good time.

I’ll start by describing my work environment! The UNESCO offices are beautiful. Because culture is one of the main areas of focus in the organization’s portfolio, there is art everywhere. Highlights include a Giacometti statue in the lobby and a mural by Josef Matta in the coffee shop! The World Heritage Centre is located in a secondary building; to get there, I walk through a beautiful Japanese garden. The cafeteria on the seventh floor has an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and the seventh arrondissement of Paris. Posters and artworks remind us of UNESCO’s core mission: to foster peace in the minds of humankind.

Here’s some background on the subject matter of my internship in case you are not familiar with the details of the World Heritage program:

The crown jewel of UNESCO’s cultural initiatives is the World Heritage Convention, ratified in 1972. This document established the World Heritage List for natural, cultural, or mixed sites of “outstanding universal value” to humanity. Properties are selected to be inscribed on the List by the World Heritage Committee, which consists of 21 States Parties to the Convention, chosen to serve terms of several years. Sites are nominated by national governments and evaluated by two Advisory Bodies, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These organizations have expertise in heritage and culture. Each year, the Committee meets and chooses which nominations will be added to the List. It can accept the Advisory Bodies’ recommendations or overrule them. Aimed at facilitating peace through celebrating and conserving heritage, the Convention has grown in scope in the decades since its inception. It has led to the creation of programs aimed at protection and restoration for heritage in danger, for example. The World Heritage Centre, where I am working this summer, was founded in 1992 to organize Committee sessions, coordinate nominations, and manage conservation and outreach programs for heritage, among other tasks.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been working on preparing documents for the Committee session, which is the forty-first since the World Heritage Convention came into force in the late 1970s (hence the abbreviation WHC 41). This internship has given me the chance to play an active role in the World Heritage Centre’s preparation for the Committee session and stewardship of the List. I have so many opportunities to gain hands-on experience and directly assist in the Centre’s official business. My principal task has been to assemble the French and English copies of Factual Errors Notifications Documents. After the Advisory Bodies review site nominations, the States Parties are allowed to submit forms correcting factual errors in the evaluations. The Advisory Bodies then respond with their own commentary on the corrections of their work. In theory, this should be straightforward — it’s only to fix typos and mistakes, right? In fact, it’s much more complex. Most of the “errors” found are in fact merely points made by the Advisory Bodies that countries disagreed with, and the corrections often advocate previous arguments made in the nomination dossier. By assembling these documents, I’ve gained new insights into the high stakes of the nomination process and the dynamic between States Parties and Advisory Bodies.

In addition, I’ve been working on assembling slides for presentations on the State of Conservation Reports. The World Heritage Committee and Centre support conservation efforts for many World Heritage Sites deemed to be at risk, and the managing authorities of these properties submit reports on their status. At Committee sessions, the Centre presents some of these reports. The Committee then decides which at-risk sites to inscribe on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which unlocks further funds and support from experts. By preparing these presentations for the Committee, I’ve learned a lot more about how World Heritage sites are managed and protected for future generations, and I’ve gotten a close look at the political challenges of heritage conservation. Often States Parties resist the inscription of their properties on the danger list, thinking that it might reflect badly on their ability to manage their own heritage sites.

Finally, I’m also writing and updating text for oral presentations of a variety of documents to the World Heritage Committee. From this vantage point, I’ve been exposed to many components of the operation of the World Heritage Centre.I hope to study international relations here at Stanford, and lately, I’ve become more interested in heritage issues. Thanks to my internship, I’ve gotten a firsthand look at how the World Heritage program works from the inside. I’ve deepened my previous knowledge and learned so much more about the complex relationships between the Advisory Bodies, World Heritage Centre, and States Parties.

WHC 41 begins tomorrow morning and will be held from 2–12 July in Krakow, Poland. I’m so excited that I will be will be assisting the Centre in running the conference, so expect another update from the field!

Written by Andrew Lokay ’20 is a FSI Global Policy Intern at UNESCO — World Heritage Centre in Paris, France.