The Economist: The limits of soft cultural power (UNESCO World Heritage Sites)

UNESCO and World Heritage Sites

The limits of soft cultural power
Sep 10th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Guarding precious and vulnerable places is one of the better things the UN's cultural agency does—but it may topple over if it stretches too far


ANYONE who dreams of exercising authority (of a fairly benign sort) over the entire world—with a special remit for the planet's most beautiful and fragile places—will enjoy perusing the 250 or so pages that contain the latest pronouncements from UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

Swooping elegantly from the valleys of the Andes to the walled cities of Europe, from misty Chinese mountains (like Emei, pictured above) to lawless African game parks, the document doles out scoldings, warnings and praise to politicians, curators, animal conservationists and mayors. Some are congratulated for following the UN cultural agency's advice; others are given dark hints of what will happen if sites do not receive proper care.

This year's most dramatic move was a rare decision to strip a place—Dresden and the surrounding Elbe valley—of its status as a "World Heritage Site": that is, a location deemed to be of universal worth to humanity by virtue of its built environment, ecological importance or both.

The German metropolis, belatedly restored to its Baroque glory after massive wartime bombing, was punished because of a motorway bridge that threatens to wreck the skyline. (The only other place to have been delisted is an antelope sanctuary in Oman, where the government actually wanted to renounce the status.) Meanwhile UNESCO accepted 13 new sites, including a sacred peak in Kyrgyzstan and a fortress in Burkina Faso, bringing to 890 the number of places under its purview.


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