World Heritage site process reformed

The Oura Cathedral in Nagasaki
PHOTO: Shutterstock.com

PARIS - The selection process for UNESCO World Heritage status has been changed to allow nations applying for registration to attend and exchange opinions at preliminary screenings that were previously conducted in private by experts.

The new process began with applications for which a decision on registration is to be made this year.

The change was made in response to criticism that the screenings were being held behind closed doors, and applies to cultural assets, including buildings and remains. Among these assets is a set called Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki, for which Japan is seeking registration.

UNESCO entrusts the preliminary screenings of the cultural assets submitted by different countries for registration to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a UNESCO advisory body. ICOMOS holds internal meetings, and every year around May issues its recommendations on whether different assets should be registered.

The final decision is made by the World Heritage Committee, comprised of representatives of different countries. ICOMOS' recommendations are made one to two months before the committee decides, and have a significant impact on the outcome of an application.

The fact that ICOMOS' preliminary screenings were held in private had led to criticism from UNESCO member countries that the recommendations were unilateral and that the value of assets was not being properly assessed. There were also many cases in which assets were deemed not suitable for registration because of an "unripe" application, and there had been strong calls for the main UNESCO organisation to review the ICOMOS screening process.

ICOMOS therefore decided to ask applying countries to be present at the internal meetings at which their applications are discussed, and began exchanging opinions at the meetings that began in November last year. It reportedly explained to Japan and other applying countries such elements as the standards for registration and the purpose of assigning such status.

The set Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki comprises 14 assets in the prefectures of Nagasaki and Kumamoto that illustrate the history of Christianity in Japan from the 16th century on. According to related sources, ICOMOS asked Japan's representatives during their exchange of opinions about issues including the "outstanding universal value" that is required for registration as a World Heritage site.

Proof is also required that appropriate measures can be taken for the protection and management of a site, and it appears that the discussion also included how the region would manage the assets. It appears that Japan will adjust its application while providing supplementary materials.

"The communication between ICOMOS and the applying countries is a big step forward," said Prof. Nobuko Inaba of Tsukuba University, an expert on cultural assets. "In 2013, ICOMOS recommended that the ancient samurai city of Kamakura not be registered, but if Japan had been able to redraft its application based on ICOMOS' opinions, the outcome probably would've been different."

"There was a lot of dissatisfaction, because applications on which countries had compiled knowledge and spent a lot of time and money were being lost due to ICOMOS' recommendations. If we can have reciprocal communication, it will end that conflict," Inaba said.Speech

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