An abbreviation for “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,” UNESCO contributes to security and peace by promoting international cooperation in education, culture, science, information, and communication. The organization promotes the sharing of knowledge and the free flow of ideas with the goal of accelerating mutual understanding. UNESCO programs also contribute towards United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In 1942, during World War II, the governments of several European nations united in the fight against Axis powers gathered in the United Kingdom for the Conference of Allied Minsters of Education. Although the war was far from won at this point, those countries joined forces seeking ways and means to rebuild their education systems after peace was restored.
The movement rapidly gained momentum, acquiring a universal character. The United States, along with several other governments, also decided to join.
In November 1945, a UN Conference was convened in London with the aim of establishing an educational and cultural organization, World War II having only just ended when the conference opened. The 44 nations that joined the organization intended it to embody a genuine culture of peace, establishing an “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind” to prevent another world war in the future.
UNESCO later spearheaded the concept of “world heritage” in response to the threatened destruction of the Ramses II temple in Abu Simbel, Egypt, to make way for the construction of the Aswan Dam. Internationally recognized as one of the world’s most important cultural monuments, the site and its inestimable archaeological remains were rescued from demolition by global action initiated by UNESCO, setting in motion international discussion regarding the need for a global convention to protect important cultural and natural heritage sites around the world.
In November 1972, UNESCO adopted a convention safeguarding the world’s cultural and natural heritage. The convention was created with the intention of protecting sites of “outstanding universal value,” a term that is intended to describe locations that are so exceptional in terms of cultural or natural significance that they transcend national boundaries, and are deemed to be of common importance for current and future generations of humanity.
To be considered for addition to the World Heritage List, sites must satisfy at least one of the following criteria:
- Represent a masterpiece of human creation.
- Exhibit an important interchange of human values, within a cultural area of the world or over a span of time, on developments in architecture, monumental arts, town planning, landscape design, or technology.
- Bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a civilization or cultural tradition.
- Be an outstanding building, technological or architectural ensemble, or a landscape that illustrates significant stages in human history.
- Be an outstanding example of a traditional settlement, sea-use, or land-use that is representative of one or more cultures, or human interaction with the environment, particularly if it is vulnerable to the impact of irreversible change.
- Be tangibly or directly associated with living traditions or events, beliefs, ideals, or with literary and artistic work.
- Contain superlative areas of exceptional natural beauty, natural phenomena, or aesthetic importance.
- Be outstanding examples representing major stages in the history of the earth, including the development of landforms, significant ongoing geological processes, the record of life, or significant physiographic or geomorphic features.
- Be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing biological and ecological processes in the development and evolution of terrestrial, coastal, marine, and freshwater ecosystems and communities of animals and plants.
- Contain the most significant and important natural habitats for in situ conservation of biodiversity, including sites that contain threatened species of outstanding value from the point of view of conservation or science.
Operational guidelines for implementation of the World Heritage Convention delineate criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List. To qualify, sites must be of outstanding value and meet at least 1 out of 10 selection criteria.
12 of the earliest additions to the World Heritage List were:
- Nahanni National Park, Canada
- L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park, Canada
- The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- The city of Quito, Ecuador
- Rock-Hewn Churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.
- Simien National Park, Ethiopia
- Krakow’s historic center, Poland
- Bochnia and Wieliczka Salt Mines, Poland
- Aachen Cathedral, Germany
- The Island of Goree, Senegal
- Yellowstone National Park, United States
- Mesa Verde National Park, United States
UNESCO convenes annually to decide the next troupe of sites to be added to the World Heritage List. Sites nominated in 2022 included the Frescoes of Padua in Italy, a collection of fresco cycles painted between 1302 and 1397, the site providing a visual record of the evolution of creative expression through the 14th century.
Another nomination for inclusion in 2022 was Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, a vast forest area situated on the Thailand-Myanmar border that is home to an array of tropical plant species, as well as endangered animal species such as the Asian Giant Tortoise, Asiatic Wild Dog, Asian Elephant, and Siamese Crocodile.