Britain backs plan to weaken heritage sites
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Thursday March 13, 2003 The Guardian
Plans supported by the British government would undermine protection for world heritage sites such as Stonehenge and the Giant's Causeway, according to the organisation that advises on their protection.
The IUCN, the international conservation union, which must be consulted before the designation of a world heritage site, says proposed rule changes undermine the convention that created such sites.
It is so alarmed about the consequences that it has written to all 175 member governments appealing for help before a special meeting to change the rules is held in Paris next week.
Among the changes the world heritage committee, which runs the world heritage scheme, will discuss are:
· Allowing states to veto any criticism of them for damaging or neglecting sites within their borders.
· Allowing states to prevent the creation of new sites in their borders if they stand in the way of development.
· Stopping the committee removing a world heritage site designation when it becomes so degraded as no longer to be worthy of inclusion.
In the appeal for help, the IUCN says allowing a country a veto would "erode the credibility and strength of the convention among ... concerned civil society interests. This change would reduce state parties' accountability to the world heritage committee and the international community".
Listing places as endangered "has been a very effective way to signal the serious threats to a property and mobilise national and international action to safeguard the property in question".
While the UK is keen on gaining more world heritage sites because they attract foreign tourists, critics say it wants to avoid criticism if it subsequently fails to look after them.
The rule change was originally proposed by Australia, which was stung by criticism for proposing to allow uranium mining in the Kakadu park, which is a world heritage site. Australia has left the 21-country ruling committee that runs the convention but its plans have been taken up and backed by the UK.
The US, which is not on the committee, was irritated by a "danger list" designation for Yellowstone national park and the Everglades and is also lobbying for the rule changes.
The world heritage convention committee's membership changes regularly and, in the 30 years since the convention was first agreed, has designated 730 natural and cultural sites for special protection. There are 24 in the UK.
Adrian Phillips, vice chair of the IUCN's world commission on protected areas, said a strength of the convention was that the decision to designate sites or make comments about them was made independently of the government that controlled the territory of the world heritage site. This has been important in protecting sites when the committee has felt it necessary to list them as "in danger".
For some countries, for example the Philippines, which has world famous rice paddies at Luzon, north of Manila, an endangered listing was welcomed to attract foreign aid. However, many countries, including Australia, the US and Russia, resent the idea of international criticism and support a rule change, Mr Phillips said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture said the current rules were legally "ambiguous" and practices might have to change. The UK was not advocating weakening the convention but had a different interpretation of the rules.
Posted by Rhiannon
13th March 2003ce