This year’s most dramatic move was a rare decision to strip a place—Dresden and the surrounding Elbe valley—of its status as a “World Heritage Site”: that is, a location deemed to be of universal worth to humanity by virtue of its built environment, ecological importance or both.
The German metropolis, belatedly restored to its Baroque glory after massive wartime bombing, was punished because of a motorway bridge that threatens to wreck the skyline. (The only other place to have been delisted is an antelope sanctuary in Oman, where the government actually wanted to renounce the status.) Meanwhile UNESCO accepted 13 new sites, including a sacred peak in Kyrgyzstan and a fortress in Burkina Faso, bringing to 890 the number of places under its purview.For an earlier post on the promise and peril of declaring an area a World Heritage Site, see this earlier post.
What makes this whole procedure tolerable (and indeed, respected) is that it is a voluntary arrangement between governments, with groups of states taking turns to form committees that duly exercise UNESCO’s moral power. At least in theory, it is not the permanent staff of the World Heritage Centre (a smallish part of the UNESCO bureaucracy) who exercise dominion over the glories of the earth, but the 186 states that have ratified the World Heritage Convention and thus signed up to the notion that some places are too precious to be left at the mercy of one government alone.