Countries and cities often boast of having a UNESCO World Heritage tag. But how successful has UNESCO been in the domain of heritage and culture
MUMBAI — The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) was founded on November 16, 1945 as an agency of the UN with a view to building peace and dialogue through culture and education. It has nearly 200 member countries, and the World Heritage Convention in 1972 has been pivotal in supporting the conservation of monuments and natural sites across the world. Countries and cities often boast of having a UNESCO World Heritage tag. But how successful has UNESCO been in the domain of heritage and culture? In his forthcoming book, Lucas Lixinski, an associate Law professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, examines how UNESCO precludes communities from controlling their own cultural heritage. Lixinski, whose scholarship focuses on international cultural heritage and human rights law, has previously written on this in his book, Intangible Cultural Heritage in International Law (OUP, 2013). He is also Vice-President (Conference) of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, and on the board of the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Lixinski spoke to Hyperallergic about the role of UNESCO, heritage legislation, art theft, and colonial heritage, among other topics.
BD: Is a UNESCO heritage tag effective or useful?
LL: It is very useful and it is largely effective but the big question is why and for whom are we protecting heritage? Over time UNESCO has become politicized, but in a bad way. All that happens is states [are] posturing to showcase their own culture and civilization at the expense of others — of communities within their state and sometimes at the expense of other countries. For instance, when the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan was considered for being added to the World Heritage list, there was a whole discussion with China and the US opposing it, saying it only portrayed the Japanese as victims of World War II, not as perpetrators. And it also put the Americans in a very bad light, as the people who dropped the bomb as opposed to the people who saved the world, which is the story they [the US] like to tell. It’s a mix of internal politics and international politics that states use heritage for.
BD: In terms of cities or neighborhoods that are UNESCO-protected, does it serve a purpose there?
LL: Often yes, but sometimes there is a price and it’s telling people they can’t live there anymore or they can live there only under certain conditions. In Lhasa, Tibet, when the main market square was added to the world heritage list, the Chinese government used that as a pretext to expel Tibetan traders from the market, saying because it was on the list it needed to look nice and the farmers’ stalls were just not going to make it look nice. So it has those effects.
BD: You said earlier in our conversation that many inclusions on the UNESCO World Heritage list privilege a Western point of view. Does that bias still play out?
BD: There are also debates that heritage regulations come in the way of development. So how do you balance that?
LL: There is a big pressure on heritage. It becomes more accentuated if you think of heritage as hoarding, [as in] “we need to protect everything because everything is important.” We need to select and we need to be okay with that. We shouldn’t protect everything. If we protect everything we are preventing other cultures from emerging. We need to create breathing room. The question is how we select. It’s something to be left to democratic processes, what people call dialogical democracy based on hybrid forums. It’s not just experts and governments that are in the room as the representatives of democracy but people who live in the areas as well, and people from different parts of the population. Something that happens is that people use the idea of heritage value to prevent development and, for instance, put pressure on access to housing. There is a neighborhood in Sydney in which people didn’t want high density housing, which is more affordable, because they thought it would attract “the wrong people” so they used the heritage value, saying “you can’t build high density housing here.” So we need to be mindful of why we are using the heritage card. That’s a reason why thinking of heritage as having intrinsic value doesn’t work.