Heritage: World Heritage Convention

Finger coral

Photo 13: Finger coral.
(NOAA Photo Library.)

Nomination Process Selection Criteria Outstanding Universal Criteria


The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage(the World Heritage Convention or "WHC") identifies and helps protect international sites of such exceptional ecological, scientific, or cultural importance that their preservation is considered a global responsibility. Under the Convention, which entered into force in 1975, participating countries nominate sites to be included on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger ("Danger List"). Currently, the World Heritage List is composed of 936 natural and cultural sites in 153 countries, and the Danger List includes 35 sites from 28 countries. One hundred and eighty-seven countries, including the United States, are party to the Convention.

Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, can submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory to be considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Proposals will be considered based on a series of nomination steps, criteria, and other evaluative processes. These constitute the key elements of the road map for proceeding from a decision to nominate site for inclusion to attaining approval for the site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The U.S. World Heritage Program is administered by the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), processing U.S. nominations and handling other daily program operations. It administers sites with funds appropriated by Congress, except for several sites that are owned by states, private foundations, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or Native American tribes. Twenty-one sites in the United States are currently included on the World Heritage List, including the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park. The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii is the latest U.S. site to be added to the list.

Since the U.S. Senate consent to ratification of the Convention in 1973, Congress has generally supported the Convention. While some concerns have been raised that designating U.S. lands and monuments as World Heritage sites would infringe on national sovereignty, these are unfounded. Ultimately, U.S. participation in the Convention does not give UNESCO or the United Nations authority over U.S. World Heritage sites or related land-management decisions. In addition, under current law, Congress is involved in the nomination of U.S. sites to the extent that the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks is required to notify the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources regarding which sites he or she plans to nominate for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

Nomination Process

1. Tentative List

The first step a country must take is to make an "inventory" of its important natural and cultural heritage sites located within its boundaries. This "inventory" is known as the Tentative List, and provides a forecast of the properties that a State Party may decide to submit for inscription in the next five to ten years and which may be updated at any time. It is an important step since the World Heritage Committee will only consider a nomination for inscription on the World Heritage List if the property has already been included on the State Party’s Tentative List.

2. The Nomination File

By preparing a Tentative List and selecting sites from it, a State Party can plan when to present a nomination file. The World Heritage Centre offers advice and assistance to the State Party in preparing this file, which needs to be as exhaustive as possible, making sure the necessary documentation and maps are included. The nomination is submitted to the World Heritage Centre for review and to check it is complete. Once a nomination file is complete the World Heritage Centre sends it to the appropriate Advisory Bodies for evaluation.

3. The Advisory Bodies

A nominated property is independently evaluated by two Advisory Bodies mandated by the World Heritage Convention: the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which respectively provide the World Heritage Committee with evaluations of the cultural and natural sites nominated. The third Advisory Body is the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an intergovernmental organization which provides the Committee with expert advice on conservation of cultural sites, as well as on training activities.

4. The World Heritage Committee

Once a site has been nominated and evaluated, it is up to the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee to make the final decision on its inscription. Once a year, the Committee meets to decide which sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage List. It can also defer its decision and request further information on sites from the States Parties.

5. The Criteria for Selection

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. These criteria are explained in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention which, besides the text of the Convention, is the main working tool on World Heritage. The criteria are regularly revised by the Committee to reflect the evolution of the World Heritage concept itself. Until the end of 2004, World Heritage sites were selected on the basis of six cultural and four natural criteria. With the adoption of the revised Operational Guidelines, only one set of ten criteria exists.

Selection Criteria

1. Governance and Guidelines

The World Heritage Convention Concerning The Protection of The World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its seventeenth session in Paris on November 16, 1972, provides the governing elements for nominating, inscribing, and monitoring WHC-listed sites. The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention indicate precise details regarding the selection criteria for WHC listed sites.

As defined by the WHC, cultural heritage includes monuments, groups of buildings, and/or sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, artistic, scientific, or anthropological point of view. Natural heritage includes physical or biological formations, and/or geological or physiographical formations or natural sites constituting the habitat of threatened species, all of which would be of outstanding universal view from the scientific, conservation, or natural beauty point of view. Further details regarding precise definitions of cultural and natural heritage are found under Section I of the WHC. The Operational Guidelines set forth detailed procedures for the inscription on the World Heritage List, the protection and conservation of World Heritage properties, implementation of the World Heritage fund, and mobilization of support in favor of the WHC. The key relevant aspects of the Operational Guidelines for inscribing sites on the World Heritage List are summarized below/herein.

2. Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) Criteria

Sites nominated for inscription must meet the definitions for cultural and/or natural heritage referenced above, as defined under WHC Articles 1 and 2. Properties may be considered as "mixed cultural and natural heritage" if they satisfy a part of all of the definitions under WHC Articles 1 and 2. Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), referenced in said Articles and throughout the WHC and Operational Guidelines, means "cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity."

Outstanding Universal Criteria (OUV)

A property (or site) is considered to have OUV if it meets one or more of the following:

(i) Represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
(ii) Exhibit an important interchange of human values on developments in architecture or technology, monumental areas, town-planning or landscape design;
(iii) Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
(iv) Be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
(v) Be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
(vi) Be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance;
(vii) Contain superlative natural phenomena or exceptional natural beauty and importance;
(viii) Be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
(ix) Be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
(x) Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of OUV from the point of view of science or conservation.

Additionally, a property must also meet conditions of integrity and authenticity. Properties may meet the conditions of authenticity if their cultural values are truthfully and credibly expressed through various attributes, such as: (i) form and design, (ii) materials and substance, (iii) use and function, (iv) management systems, (v) location and setting, and (v) language and other forms of intangible heritage. A property may also meet conditions of integrity depending on the extent to which the property includes all elements necessary to express its OUV, is of adequate size to the ensure the complete representation of the features that convey the property’s significance, and suffers from adverse effects of development or neglect.

For properties nominated under criteria (vii) to (x), a corresponding criterion of integrity has been defined.

Properties inscribed on the World Heritage List must also have adequate long-term legislative, regulatory, institutional and/or traditional protection and management. Similarly, State Parties should demonstrate adequate protection for the nominated property. Relevant texts should be appended to the nomination, with clear explanations regarding the way such protections operate to safeguard the property from negatively impacting its OUV.

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