This year marks the 40th anniversary of the United Nations international treaty on World Heritage, which has contributed much to protecting natural and cultural heritages from development, natural disasters or armed conflicts. However, the treaty now faces a key turning point amid confrontations between some developing and developed countries.
The treaty, formally called the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, was adopted at UNESCO's general meeting in Paris in November 1972 and took effect in 1975.
Backed by the United States, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization made efforts in the 1960s to protect the Nubian monuments along the Nile River — remains of the ancient Egyptian civilization — from being submerged in water due to the construction of dams and reservoirs. UNESCO's efforts led to the World Heritage treaty.
In 1978, 12 sites were inscribed on the World Heritage list for the first time. Among them were Yellowstone National Park of the United States and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. The following year, 45 more sites, such as the pyramids of Egypt, were added to the list.
The number of World Heritage sites inscribed on the list stands at 936, comprising 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 mixed properties.
The World Heritage convention is said to be the most successful international treaty in the sense that the number states signing it has increased to 187 — out of the 193 U.N. member states.
Japan was slow to ratify the pact, doing so in 1992, as it took time for the country to establish domestic legislation aimed at protecting natural and cultural assets. The following year, the nature-rich Yakushima Island off Kyushu, the Shirakami Mountain Range in northeastern Japan, the Horyuji Temple in the ancient capital of Nara, and Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture were placed on the list.
There are 16 sites from Japan on the list: 12 cultural and four natural. Most recently, in 2011, the Ogasawara Islands and the Buddhist temples, gardens and archaeological sites of Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, were added to the list.
Countries that hope to register their sites on the list are required to certify that those sites are of remarkable and universal value. UNESCO strictly checks if the sites and their environments have been fully protected.
After their sites are inscribed on the list, countries can receive financial and technical support from the international community, and can expect a boost in tourism to the sites.
Confrontation between some developing and developed countries is deepening, however. Developing countries hope to add more sites to the list, while some developed countries want to curb new entries to ensure the list's overall quality.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee convenes a regular session every summer to examine requests from countries to place their sites on the list. In recent years, the committee has often decided to inscribe sites of some developing countries that experts of UNESCO advisory bodies have not highly evaluated. It seems to be the wish of developing countries to increase the number of their sites on the list.
The World Heritage Committee, which consists of representatives of 21 countries, decides whether to inscribe the sites on the list after UNESCO advisers and experts make on-the-spot inspections of the sites and file their opinions with the committee.
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