Chapitre 8.
World heritage and the diversity
of cultural expressions

Christina Cameron[1]


This paper discusses how three UNESCO conventions act as levers for developing and strengthening societies. They are the World Heritage Convention (1972), the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005a)[2]. After examining the specific purpose and context within which each Convention was created over a period of more than 30 years, the paper discusses synergies among the three and the contribution of each to more resilient and sustainable societies. The evidence suggests that, despite their different purposes and contexts, these three UNESCO conventions, taken together, serve to reinforce the development of societies.


La présente contribution examine la manière dont trois conventions de l’UNESCO servent de leviers pour le développement et le renforcement des sociétés. Il s’agit de la Convention du patrimoine mondial (1972), de la Convention pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel immatériel (2003) et de la Convention sur la protection et la promotion de la diversité des expressions culturelles (2005a). Après avoir examiné l’objectif spécifique et le contexte dans lequel chaque Convention a été créée sur une période de plus de 30 ans, le texte examine les synergies entre les trois et la contribution de chacune d’entre elles à des sociétés plus résilientes et durables. Les faits suggèrent qu’en dépit de leurs buts et contextes différents, ces trois conventions de l’UNESCO, prises ensemble, servent à renforcer le développement des sociétés.

Different global contexts

It is worth recalling that UNESCO was created to respond to the destructive consequences of war and the need to rebuild societies. With a mandate in the fields of education, science and culture, UNESCO provides a focal point for building international standards in these fields, for developing technical capacity and for encouraging international cooperation. In the early years, there was optimism that UNESCO could help build a robust international society. This explains the surge of standard-setting instruments that were adopted, including recommendations on archaeological excavations (UNESCO, 1956), landscapes (UNESCO, 1962) and cultural property endangered by public or private works (UNESCO, 1968) as well as the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). Each recommendation and convention emerged in its own specific context in response to important issues of its day.

The 1972 World Heritage Convention looks back to the destruction of the world wars and the ensuing urban and industrial development in the post-war years. The Convention modelled itself on a 1962 United Nations List of Protected Heritage Areas and several international safeguarding campaigns – the best known being the campaign to save Egyptian monumental sculptures at Abu Simbel and Philae from floodwaters caused by the building of the Aswan Dam. The purpose of the World Heritage Convention is to identify, protect and conserve sites of global significance and to mobilise international cooperation. The fundamental idea is that these places of outstanding universal significance transcend national boundaries and belong to humanity as a whole.

The 2003 and 2005 Conventions emerged in a different era. The early 21st century was marked by accelerating globalization as multinational corporations and international institutions fostered greater interaction among countries and new technologies disseminated culture on a global scale. Globalization rapidly transformed social processes, threatening to marginalize minority groups and vulnerable populations, and threatening to diminish cultural and biological diversity. In the decade leading up to the millennium, major international conferences on the environment and culture set the world on a different path. Two key meetings are the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), sometimes called the Rio Summit or Earth Summit, and the 1998 Stockholm Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development.

During the Rio Summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature, a pivotal moment for the global community because it formally acknowledged the severity of worldwide threats to the planet’s fragile environment and committed countries to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of its components. With regard to culture, the Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly recognized the contribution that traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples makes to the sustainable use of biological resources. The contracting parties agreed to “protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements” (United Nations, 1992 : preamble, 10.c).

The creators of the 2003 and 2005 Conventions were fully aware of the World Heritage Convention. In their structural components, all three Conventions are similar. They each establish general assemblies of participating states parties as well as smaller powerful committees with key decision-making authorities. They each have dedicated Funds for international cooperation. They differ however on the issue of expert advisory bodies : the World Heritage Convention formally names three professional organizations (the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)) to provide independent advice on nominations and conservation (UNESCO, 1972 : 14.2) ; the Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions has a Panel of Experts to give advice on project proposals (UNESCO, 2013 : 16-17) ; but the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage does not make provision for expert advice, leaving it to the Committee itself to “establish, on a temporary basis, whatever ad hoc consultative bodies it deems necessary to carry out its task” (UNESCO, 2003 : 8.3). That this approach has been less satisfactory is indicated by debates at the 2011 Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee session on measures to improve the implementation of the Convention and in particular to manage the high number of nominations. At this time, the majority of countries supported the idea of creating advisory bodies “believing that this would strengthen the credibility of decisions taken by the Committee, as it would no longer play a dual role of judge and party” (UNESCO, 2012 : 166).

1972 Convention

The World Heritage Convention was originally less concerned about social development and more concerned about site protection and conservation. Early interpretations of cultural heritage in the World Heritage system focused on high-style architectural monuments, historic cities and archaeological sites of ancient – not living civilizations. The criteria used to assess Outstanding Universal Value were largely focused on the physical fabric of sites. Right from the outset in 1979, the World Heritage Committee was faced with large numbers of nominations associated with famous people, historical events and battlefields. Concerned about the credibility of the World Heritage List, the Committee at that time adopted a strict and selective approach to intangible values. As a result, it tightened its criteria to emphasize the concrete physical aspects of cultural property (UNESCO, 1980 : 18).

It was only in the 1990s that the Committee shifted gears towards a more anthropological approach by adopting several strategies to better reflect intangible cultural values at World Heritage properties. The three most important initiatives are the adoption of a cultural landscapes category that included landscapes of associative value, the development of a Global Strategy for a representative and balanced World Heritage List that encouraged sites with strong intangible qualities, and a redefinition of the “concept of authenticity”, a qualifying condition for listing sites, to include several intangible attributes such as use and function ; traditions, techniques and management systems ; and language, spirit and feeling.

Cultural landscapes

The first initiative is the development of a cultural landscapes category in 1992 that expanded the interpretation of cultural heritage in the World Heritage system and helped bridge the gap between culture and nature. In the Convention, the definition of cultural heritage includes sites that demonstrate the “combined works of man and nature” (UNESCO, 1972 : 1). Although both natural and cultural heritage are included in the World Heritage Convention – a brilliant stroke of genius – early implementation focused on each end of the spectrum, avoiding the interface of culture and nature until 1984 when the French delegation introduced a debate on rural landscapes. The ensuing discussions led to an understanding that humanized landscapes evolve and change over time, that they should be seen as holistic, and that values are derived largely from the interaction between human beings and the land, and not from outstanding characteristics of the landscape itself (Cameron and Rössler, 2013 : 59-71).

A philosophical breakthrough that deeply affected the interpretation of cultural landscapes came in a 1992 meeting of UNESCO experts at the parc national de la Vanoise at la Petite Pierre, France. The most important idea was recognition of the intangible dimensions for such landscapes “justified by virtue of powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent” (Cameron and Rössler, 2013 : 68). Credit for this paradigm shift is attributed to an Australian participant, Isabel McBryde who promoted the recognition of the spiritual aspects of indigenous landscapes in Australia (Gfeller, 2013 : 496-499). This new approach to associative cultural landscapes has facilitated inscription of sites like Tongariro National Park (New Zealand) and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Australia) as cultural landscapes in recognition of their spiritual values. The linkages with the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage are evident, albeit the cultural landscapes approach only presents a partial response to the desire to recognize intangible cultural heritage.

Global strategy

The second initiative is the 1994 Global Strategy for a balanced, credible and representative World Heritage List. It was the culmination of more than a decade of reflection on how the World Heritage system could better reflect the world-wide diversity of cultural heritage. This initiative acknowledged that the concept of cultural heritage had evolved since the creation of the 1972 Convention and proposed a more flexible and adaptable approach to identifying Outstanding Universal Value, the threshold for inscription on the World Heritage List. The report speaks of “cultural groupings that were complex and multidimensional, which demonstrated in spatial terms the social structures, ways of life, beliefs, systems of knowledge and representations of different past and present cultures.” To enhance the World Heritage List, the Global Strategy tried to “take into account all the possibilities for extending and enriching it by means of new types of property whose value might become apparent as knowledge and ideas developed” (UNESCO, 1994).

Its most significant contribution was the creation of a general framework that broadened the kinds of properties that might be considered for listing. The framework was structured under two principal themes and a number of sub-themes, all formulated in general terms to encourage cultural nominations from under-represented regions and cultures. Under two main themes — “human coexistence with the land” and “human beings in society” — the framework encouraged sites with strong intangible qualities, under sub-themes like “modes of subsistence,” “human interaction,” “cultural coexistence,” and “spirituality and creative expression”. The Global Strategy demonstrates a shift towards a more anthropological perspective, one focused on cultural exchange and human experiences on the land and in society (Cameron and Rössler, 2013 : 82-85).

The enthusiastic response from non-Western countries suggests that it succeeded to some extent in adapting to diversity and pluralism. In the words of Dawson Munjeri from Zimbabwe : “In the case of Southern Africa, the Global Strategy has made a lot of positive contribution. If you look at the sites that are being inscribed from Africa, most of them fall in the category of the Global Strategy : cultural landscapes, cultural itineraries, spiritual sites and the like” (Canada Research Chair, 2010a).


The third initiative is the significant reinterpretation of the concept of authenticity, a qualifying condition for listing cultural World Heritage Sites. With four original attributes of design, materials, workmanship and setting, the initial understanding of authenticity leaned towards tangible characteristics of properties, a reflection of European conservation philosophy at that time. This third World Heritage initiative led to important additions to the attributes of authenticity.

The issue was first raised in 1979 by Michel Parent, a French architect who was at that time President of ICOMOS. He acknowledged the difficulty of defining the term, noting that “authenticity is relative and depends on the nature of the property involved”. Even at that time, he referred to the case of Japanese wooden temples “whose timbers have been replaced regularly as and when they decay – without any alteration of the architecture or the look of the material over ten centuries – remains undeniably authentic” (Cameron and Rössler 2013 : 85-86). In the 1980s, the Committee vacillated between a rigorous materials-based interpretation of authenticity and a more flexible symbolic one for what were called exceptional cases.

The first modification to the definition was made to address the presence of communities living in cultural landscapes. But the most significant change to the understanding of authenticity as it applies to World Heritage Sites came from the 1994 Nara Conference on Authenticity. Under the leadership of Japan and UNESCO, the Nara process brought together international experts from diverse cultural perspectives. The Nara Document represents a paradigm shift in conservation theory because it interprets authenticity as a relative concept that must be understood within its own cultural context (Larsen, 1995 : xxi-xxiii). It marked, in the view of Canadian architect Herb Stovel, one of the Rapporteurs, “the final stage of the move from belief in universal international absolutes, first introduced by the Venice Charter, towards acceptance of conservation judgements as necessarily relative and contextual” (Stovel, 2008 : 9). The body of thought coming from Nara represents a doctrinal shift towards greater recognition of cultural and heritage diversity as well as a recognition of the intangible dimensions of heritage sites.

Based on the results of the Nara process, the World Heritage Operational Guidelines were amended to add other less tangible attributes such as use and function ; traditions, techniques and management systems ; language, and other forms of intangible heritage ; and spirit and feeling (UNESCO, 2005b : 82). This broader definition of authenticity has paved the way for listing properties like Aapravasi Ghat (Mauritius), where value is associated with memories of indentured workers from India, and the old bridge area of Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina), a reconstruction which ICOMOS judged to have overall authenticity with strong intangible dimensions (Cameron, 2008 : 19-24). It is interesting to note that the 2003 Convention does not include authenticity as a consideration for listing intangible cultural heritage, perhaps a reflection of an anti-folklore bias among the drafters. Critics of the term “folklore” thought that it focused too narrowly on the product itself and ignored the spontaneous act of creation which reflected community values and know-how (Blake, 2001 : 9).

2003 Convention

In the case of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the drafting group had the 1972 World Heritage Convention in hand as members stroked out phrases, added different words and crafted definitions for the new text. As explained by Francesco Francioni, professor of international law who chaired the early development of the 2003 Convention, “UNESCO wanted a convention rather quickly and the model of the World Heritage was very attractive … it was a template” (Canada Research Chair, 2010b). Its creation can be attributed in part to globalization which threatened cultural traditions of communities, minority groups and indigenous peoples who contribute to the production and maintenance of such heritage. The Convention emphasizes this point, insisting that intangible cultural heritage is “the mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development” (UNESCO, 2003 : preamble).

But one can also make the argument that the creation of the 2003 Convention is a result of the perceived shortcomings of the World Heritage Convention including a bias towards European heritage and a failure to properly reflect the intangible values associated with natural and cultural sites in many parts of the world. The 2003 Convention confirms this perception, noting that it provides an opportunity for a more inclusive application of World Heritage that would emphasize “the deep-seated interdependence between the intangible cultural heritage and the tangible cultural and natural heritage” (UNESCO, 2003 : preamble).

Proponents of an intangible cultural heritage convention, including British law professor Janet Blake, argued that the World Heritage Convention was too strongly focussed on sites rather than on their social and cultural context, that it largely overlooked traditional and indigenous heritage and that it did not concern itself with the revitalization of living creative processes. Critics found its threshold of Outstanding Universal Value too demanding and exclusive. For these reasons, the 2003 Convention developed a broad threshold for inclusion, known first as “outstanding specific value”, but later replaced by the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural heritage of Humanity” (Blake, 2001 : 72-75). In summary, the 2003 Convention emerged as a result of the surge of interest in protecting cultural diversity and traditional knowledge in the face of globalizing forces as well as the inability of the 1972 Convention to fully address these issues.

2005 Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions

The 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions differs from the other two in that it has its roots outside UNESCO’s traditional sphere of activity in the arena of international trade. In the context of multilateral trade talks in the 1990s, the concept of cultural diversity emerged as a reaction to globalization. The origins go back to the 1993-1994 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) where, for the first time, cultural goods and services were mentioned for possible inclusion in free trade agreements. The notion of cultural diversity in its own right gradually took form. It responded to fears that culture would be treated as a commodity for economic gain and that public policies supporting creative cultural industries would be deemed protectionist and hence dismantled. Spearheaded by France, Canada, Quebec and the Organization international de la Francophonie (OIF), momentum grew to remove cultural goods and services from a trade environment to UNESCO, where cultural diversity would be considered in its social and anthropological dimensions, not just for its economic value (Musitelli, 2006 : 11-13).

There were several key events in this process. UNESCO’s 1998 Stockholm Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development, which aimed to operationalize the 1995 United Nations report on Our Creative Diversity, affirmed for the first time that cultural goods and services are not commodities and are not like other forms of merchandise. As one delegate to the Stockholm meeting expressed it, “Now that economies are interlocking into a global market, a basic question is being asked : are cultural objects commodities like any other ? Are films, books, videos to be treated like flowers or footballs in world trade ?” (UNESCO, 1998 : 89).

Momentum grew rapidly after the Stockholm conference. Within weeks, two networks were created, one governmental, the other non-governmental. The first, the International Network on Cultural Policy, brought together Ministers of Culture from around the world ; the second, the International Network on Cultural Diversity, was an informal global organization working to counter the adverse effects of globalization on world cultures. This network of civil society brought together cultural organizations, artists, cultural producers, academics and heritage institutions. Both groups met in Ottawa, Canada two months after the Stockholm meeting to develop a common front and to pressure UNESCO to take over leadership of the cultural diversity initiative (Bernier, 2003 : 6).

Diplomacy and engagement of civil society led to the fast-tracked adoption of the 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. This legal instrument marks the political legitimization of the concept of cultural diversity (Musitelli, 2006 : 16). In language reminiscent of the 1972 and 2003 Conventions, it states that “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature” referring to it as “the common heritage of humanity” (UNESCO, 2001 : 1). Its action plan began with a proposal to create an international legal instrument on cultural diversity. The resulting 2005 Convention did not aim to protect cultural diversity in its widest sense, but to protect the diversity of cultural expressions and to nurture ongoing cultural creativity in order to sustain cultural diversity.

While the 2005 Convention comes out of a multilateral trade environment, its positioning within UNESCO ensured that cultural dimensions took priority. Some of its key ideas have influenced the implementation of the 1972 and the 2003 Conventions and heritage practices more generally. For example, conservation approaches have increasingly taken into consideration the social processes by which cultural heritage is produced, interpreted and safeguarded, giving rise to a greater understanding of cultural heritage where tangible and intangible elements are inextricably intertwined. In addition, the focus on pluralism and respect for all cultures in the 2005 Convention coincides with a growing acknowledgement in heritage practice that values are multiple and that the means of conserving them are diverse.

The emphasis of the 2005 Convention on the protection and promotion of traditional knowledge, and particularly the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples, resonates with the other two Conventions, particularly with regard to sustainable landscapes and sacred sites. In the case of working landscapes, biodiversity is protected through sustainable use and the application of traditional knowledge by local communities ; in the case of sacred landscapes, intangible layers of human experience are rooted in the natural environment with the unexpected result that biodiversity is protected by cultural groups with religious and spiritual relationships to the places.

The World Heritage system has the potential to reinforce inter-connectivity between biological and cultural diversity. Conservation of an estimated ten per cent of World Heritage Sites with strong biodiversity results from traditional knowledge and cultural practices. However, cultural groups and communities associated with these large protected areas are typically not given recognition under World Heritage cultural criteria. This lack of recognition is one factor that paved the way for the 2003 Convention. Traditional knowledge and cultural practices also have the potential to contribute to the sustainable development of specific agricultural systems and landscapes. In this regard, the related United Nations program for Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, also supports maintenance of indigenous knowledge systems in order to ensure resilient ecosystems and food security.

Probably the most important influence that the 2005 Convention has had on the 1972 and 2003 Conventions comes from the priority it gives to the participation of civil society. It is worth recalling that the World Heritage Convention took an entirely different approach. It does not mention civil society in its text and has been correctly criticized for its concentration of power at the level of national governments. In fact, the World Heritage Committee initially made deliberate choices to minimize participation of interested stakeholders, operating behind closed doors and limiting access to a variety of institutions and bodies. Attempts by various groups to achieve official status within the World Heritage system have been systematically rebuffed. The most serious case occurred in 2001 when a proposal to foster the development of a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE) was summarily rejected (UNESCO, 2002 : 57). The Committee’s rejection of WHIPCOE as a consultative body or as a network confirms the views of some scholars that the globalized World Heritage system in fact supports nation-state-based power structures and nationalist agendas (Labadi and Long, 2010 : 5, 20). It was only in 2005 that the Committee reversed its position, perhaps influenced by the 2005 Convention, and positively encouraged the participation of a wide variety of communities, stakeholders and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (UNESCO, 2005b : 39-40). Two years later, it added a fifth “C” for “Community” to its strategic objectives. In this second decade of the 21st century, civil society and communities are now more deeply involved in World Heritage matters although still not formally within the statutory bodies on the Convention.

The 2003 Convention explicitly calls for the participation of communities, groups and relevant nongovernmental organizations in the identification and safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. In addition, countries are encouraged to actively involve the creators of such heritage in its management (UNESCO, 2003 : 15).

But these provisions seem timid in the context of the 2005 Convention which opens wide the door to civil society. The Convention’s most explicit provision states that countries “acknowledge the fundamental role of civil society in protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions. Parties shall encourage the active participation of civil society in their efforts to achieve the objectives of this Convention” (UNESCO, 2005a : article 11). Mirroring the interaction between the two international networks created after the 1998 Stockholm Intergovernmental Conference, the 2005 Convention calls for the involvement of civil society in preparing reports on its implementation, described by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova as a “platform for dialogue between Governments and civil society, deepening a shared sense of responsibility” (UNESCO, 2005a : foreword, 11). In the Operational Guidelines, an entire annex spells out the role and participation of civil society including participation in statutory meetings and access to the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2013 : 47-49).

The new openness of the 2003 and especially the 2005 Conventions perhaps explains Director General Matsuura’s view in a 2009 interview that the role of local communities “is something the 1972 Convention should have more carefully looked into” (Canada Research Chair, 2009).

In summary, the timing for the 2005 Convention comes from a combination of factors. In particular, it is the result of the surge of interest in protecting biodiversity and cultural diversity as well as a determination, initiated by French-speaking countries, to protect cultural industries and to exempt culture from global negotiations on free trade.


Development of UNESCO programs and instruments has evolved in an ad hoc way, responding to issues of the day. The approach of treating separate aspects of cultural heritage, as demonstrated by the various Conventions and Recommendations, seems from a present-day perspective to be piecemeal and no longer aligned with current ideas about treating cultural heritage in a holistic way. While it would be virtually impossible to re-negotiate the Conventions themselves, achieving the goals of the three Conventions could well be enhanced by implementing them in a complementary way.

Though coming from different periods and contexts, all three Conventions contribute to a sustainability agenda. From a philosophical perspective, the conceptual frameworks that underpin all three Conventions are being re-evaluated in light of present-day values and perceptions. The need for including cultural heritage in strategies for sustainable development and poverty reduction has gained broad acceptance. The UNESCO Conventions of 1972, 2003 and 2005 offer opportunities to link cultural heritage and development in ways that give proper consideration to cultural values and community concerns while contributing to goals of sustainability.


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  1. University of Montreal.
  2. A version of this paper was first presented by the author at an international conference on UNESCO’s 1972, 2003 and 2005 Conventions in Bergen, Norway, in March 2014.

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