UNESCO: Politics and culture at the 41st Session of the World Heritage Committee

At the beginning of the month, I left Paris and traveled to Krakow, Poland, for the annual session of the World Heritage Committee. After several weeks of preparation, it was finally time to witness the results of our preparatory work on documents and speeches.

On the dais at the 41st WHC

During my time in Krakow, I was privileged to have the chance to actively participate in the running of the Committee session. I got firsthand experience with what goes on behind the scenes at a U.N. statutory meeting. I spent a lot of time in World Heritage Centre offices backstage, double-checking last-minute documents or putting together slides minutes before they were needed onstage. It was often challenging to keep up with the frantic pace of work! Given the geopolitical stakes involved, it was essential to get everything right. For example, the order of discussion of potential World Heritage sites varies every year by region. If we don’t follow the correct rotation, countries could complain of unfair treatment. It is crucial for the U.N., in this case the World Heritage Committee, to strive for neutrality in every decision, no matter how trivial it may seem.

Most often, though, I was on the dais, seated in the back with other World Heritage Centre employees, ensuring that the conference ran smoothly. I clicked through slides while speakers gave presentations, took notes on the decisions being made by the Committee, and made sure information was readily available whenever a member of the Centre needed it. From my perch in the back row, I had a perfect view of everything that happened — the diplomatic drama, the applause and tear-filled celebrations following inscriptions, and the relentless pace of speeches. I was witness to discussions on the best strategies to conserve heritage in danger, whether certain sites should be added to the List, and the evolving role of heritage today in sustainable development. I’ve been interested in this field for a while, but now I’ve gained insights into more complex dimensions of the subject. Beyond heritage, I’ve learned more about how a complicated international summit is organized and conducted. The slow, perhaps even boring, pace of deliberations seen on television does not reveal the excitement and copious work behind the scenes!

My two weeks at the World Heritage Committee session were also a fascinating case study in international politics, especially the cooperation, conflict, and contradictions inherent within. The conference began on Sunday 2 July with an opening ceremony at Wawel Castel, ancient seat of Polish kings. There, nestled in the centerpiece of Polish culture, a succession of dignitaries spoke about the importance of world heritage and its relevance in today’s era of turbulent politics. UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, the first woman to hold the post, spoke about the unifying power of World Heritage in an increasingly fractured world, and the need to protect it from extremist groups. She was a candidate for U.N. Secretary-General last year but was ultimately passed over. The President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, attested to his country’s strong support of UNESCO and the conservation of heritage, in the tradition of the rebuilding of Warsaw following the Polish capital’s destruction during the Second World War.

Many environmentalists, however, decry Duda’s right-wing government’s logging policies in the Białowieża Forest World Heritage Site. Ostensibly for the purpose of protecting against the European spruce bark beetle, Poland has opened these protected areas to the logging industry. This controversy manifested itself in Krakow, where protestors rallied outside the conference center, accompanied by loud chainsaw noises, and activists planted anti-logging stickers in the conference center’s bathrooms, as well as napkins emblazoned with environmental messages at the opening ceremony reception.

Although the Committee Chair, this year a Polish professor, pleaded with delegates to abstain from political motivations and self-interests when making decisions, geopolitical factors were never far from anyone’s mind. In particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boiled over multiple times over the course of the session. The first site considered for inscription on the World Heritage List was the old town of Hebron / Al-Khalil, a city in the West Bank. Nominated by the Palestinian Authority under emergency protocol due to the security situation in the region, this site immediately launched vigorous — and often vitriolic — debate. Emotions ran high on both sides. The Israeli ambassador invoked the legacy of the Holocaust, remarking that Krakow is only miles from the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and calling for the entire hall to stand for a moment of silence to commemorate the Nazi genocide. In response, Cuba urged delegations to stand for Palestinian victims who have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other theatrical moments included the Israeli ambassador’s demeaning comparison of the Palestinian position with a malfunctioning toilet in his Paris apartment, the calling of security forces to respond to the Israeli ambassador’s aggressive march up to the dais to criticize the Committee Chair on his handling of voting procedures, and the appearance of the mayor of Hebron, accused by Israel of being a terrorist. And during all of this, I was just sitting on the dais trying to do my work!

While World Heritage may seem to transcend the gritty realities of geopolitics, it clearly does not, and the intersection of the two is fascinating. This summer, I’ve been exposed to both perspectives on UNESCO’s work: the details of heritage management and conservation, and the political realities of the process. It has been such a valuable experience. Since the end of the conference, I’ve been kept busy in UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, and I’ll be back soon to give you one final update of my internship.


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