By Michael A. Di Giovine
UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, particularly those in hotspots of geopolitical conflict, have been in the news this past month. The Wall Street Journal published a photo essay on some of the most recently designated sites. And while the Palestinian Authority reportedly has nominated Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity—believed to be Jesus’ birthplace—to the prestigious World Heritage List, Cambodians and Thais have engaged in bloody shootouts that have left nearly 10 dead over the remote Khmer temple of Preah Vihear. What are these sites and why do they captivate the imaginations, and ideologies, of so many people?
Ratified in 1972, the World Heritage Convention designates local places of historical, cultural, or artistic interest as “universal heritage.” In The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism, I argue that this is not empty political maneuvering, but rather a way to foster “peace in the minds of men”, as the Preamble to UNESCO’s Constitution urges, by creating a vast heritage-scape that is bound together by these places of universal significance. Mixing such different sites together, the heritage-scape makes it clear that what unifies all of us is our diversity.
Why do countries agree to “give up” their locality to the universality of the heritage-scape, and adopt the costly regulations UNESCO imposes? Contrary to public belief, a designation does not win the country funding—which is disbursed on a case-by-case basis for training. Rather, these countries respond to the prestige factor associated with site designation.
Just being on the List not only adds value to a nation-state (“we have one of the most important places in the world!”), but allows some of the smallest countries to be counted with the big ones, equating lesser-known monuments like Preah Vihear with popular places such as Venice and Angkor Wat. Without discounting any of the good intensions on the part of the Palestinian Authority, this certainly is a motivating factor: getting on the list means sitting at the same table as other countries; it is one step closer to being recognized as a legitimate state. The fact that Palestine has chosen a (non-Muslim) site important to many Westerners to represent itself on the global stage is therefore no accident; rather, it is a way of claiming to share in Western heritage, and to be its ally rather than its enemy.
While Palestine is betting on a site that is not fully considered “Palestinian” by its people, most World Heritage sites are deeply rooted in the culture and ideology of a nation-state. Many, like Preah Vihear, are claimed by multiple countries. A 9th-century monastery straddling a long-contested portion of the Thai-Cambodian border (its main structure is in Cambodia, but it’s only accessible through Thailand), Preah Vihear was designated for Cambodia in 2008 after a deal was brokered between the now-deposed Thai government of Thaksin Shinawatra and Cambodia’s Hun Sen. The Thai opposition party immediately stoked intense local feelings for Preah Vihear, setting in motion a series of uprisings and coups that toppled Shinawatra’s government and continues to this day.
UNESCO could have handled the situation differently by not attributing an “owner” country to Preah Vihear (like Jerusalem), or, better, by requiring both countries to share the temple (there are already several so-called “transnational sites”). The latter would have the added value of diplomatically illustrating UNESCO’s peacemaking claims of “unity in diversity.” Provided it joins the World Heritage Convention, the Palestinian Authority’s request can provide UNESCO with a second chance to truly foster peace diplomatically; let’s hope the Church of the Nativity fares better than Preah Vihear—it has unfortunately seen enough combat already.
Michael A. Di Giovine is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago, a former tour operator, and the author of The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. He is currently researching heritage, pilgrimage and cultural revitalization associated with the cult of Catholic saint and stigmatic, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.