The case against UNESCO

There’s no shortage of controversial agencies within the United Nations. Matthew Russell Lee took aim at a few for FP last week. But surely UNESCO is beyond reproach. Perhaps not, according to the Independent‘s Simon Usborne, who writes that being designated a World Heritage Site can sometimes be the kiss of death for fragile historial ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
586238_090430_angkor2.jpg
586238_090430_angkor2.jpg
A tourist takes picture next to a wall of Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap province, some 314 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh on December 7, 2008. Tourist arrivals to Cambodia topped two million in 2007, and the sector remains one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the country, where millions live in poverty after decades of civil strife. AFP PHOTO/TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

There's no shortage of controversial agencies within the United Nations. Matthew Russell Lee took aim at a few for FP last week. But surely UNESCO is beyond reproach.

Perhaps not, according to the Independent's Simon Usborne, who writes that being designated a World Heritage Site can sometimes be the kiss of death for fragile historial sites like Cambodia's Angkor Wat:

There’s no shortage of controversial agencies within the United Nations. Matthew Russell Lee took aim at a few for FP last week. But surely UNESCO is beyond reproach.

Perhaps not, according to the Independent‘s Simon Usborne, who writes that being designated a World Heritage Site can sometimes be the kiss of death for fragile historial sites like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat:

A World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor now receives more than 2 million tourists a year. The neighbouring town of Siem Reap has been transformed into a concrete mass of hotels, restaurants and an international airport. Meanwhile, the ancient stones at the temples are being slowly worn away by millions of flip-flops and walking boots.

Even Unesco admits it was caught “off guard” at Angkor. “All our efforts were focused on restoration because Angkor was in a poor state when we inscribed it,” says Francesco Bandarin, the director of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre. “Nobody looked at the urban explosion that was happening in Siem Reap.” Bandarin says Unesco now has a commission dedicated to site management at Angkor but, as he concedes, “we only have moral power. We advise and recommend action, but these are light guns – it’s up to Cambodia to listen.”

The site selection process is fairly murky as well, as the case of Japan’s Iwami silver mine illustrates:

The Iwami Ginzan silver mine was at the heart of a boomtown in the south-west of Honshu Island in the 1600s. But then its fortunes faded and a nearby forest drew in after the mine closed in 1923. By the 1970s, Iwami resembled a ghost town, and might have been forgotten, but for the Yen signs in the eyes of the tourist authorities. In 2007, after intense lobbying in Tokyo, a hole in the ground, of which most Japanese were entirely unaware, joined the ranks of the Taj and the Great Wall of China as a World Heritage Site.

So how did Iwami ever make the list? How does any site get “inscribed”, to use Unesco-speak? If there is one fatal flaw in the whole process it is that countries submit their own nominations for inclusion. So when local businessman Toshiro Nakamura made it his life’s mission to turn Iwami into a tourist attraction, the suits at the local prefecture were all ears. They used their links with diplomats in Tokyo to make a case for Iwami within Unesco’s World Heritage Committee.

In the following year, almost 1 million people brought their cameras shoes, picnic baskets – and wallets – to Iwami. Before that, visitor numbers mostly comprised curious locals, and averaged about 15,000 a year. Tourists were bussed into a site without a suitable facilities; in one news report, a weary resident recalled returning home to find three visitors sitting on his sofa, having mistaken his house for part of the tour. Many tourists, apparently expecting a site to rival the Pyramids, left disappointed.

It seems that UNESCO, like much of the United Nations, is hampered by the unfortunate fact that it’s comprised of nations. You can’t really criticize Iwami — and certainly not struggling Cambodia — for trying to attract tourists. That their self-interest runs directly counter to UNESCO’s stated goals is just one of the tragic realities of international organizations.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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