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Between Imagined Communities of Practice

Nicolas Adell
Regina F. Bendix
Chiara Bortolotto
et al.

Reflections on Heritage Experts and Decision Makers

Community as Myth and Reality in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention

Christoph Brumann

Texte intégral

1 Introduction

1When comparing the role of community in the UNESCO heritage conventions, there appears to be a clear case: Community is the province of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003, where the word appears no less than 12 times in the convention text. Right at the beginning, Intangible Cultural Heritage is linked with communities, and these, in turn, with identity in a very unproblematic way, as if this were a natural, harmonious and good union between three things that, in themselves, are natural and good:

Article 2 – Definitions
For the purposes of this Convention,
1. The ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills […] that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups […] and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. (UNESCO 2003)

2Obviously, this is a rosy assessment that benignly overlooks the ways in which communities can be oppressive and collective identities have fuelled division, all the way from everyday discrimination to genocides. The role of positively imagined communities in the implementation of the new Convention, however, is nonetheless central.

3By comparison, communities play a lesser role in the other prominent UNESCO heritage instrument, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by the General Conference in 1972, but in recent years, the concept is putting on discursive weight here too. The World Heritage Convention continues to be the most influential global arena for heritage conservation, and a place on the erudite World Heritage List is a highly coveted trophy in tourism, development schemes, and local and national status quests. Although the consequences of gaining a World Heritage title are often complex, there are numerous cases where conservation has been significantly strengthened. Indirectly, World Heritage has also shaped the evolution, institutional elaboration and hidden agendas of the 2003 Convention, which is partly modeled on and partly defined against its sister treaty, and where key actors’ behavior is also often influenced by the World Heritage experience (Hafstein 2009).

  • 1 Using an ethnographic approach, I have combined participant observation of the official sessions of (...)

4Therefore, in this chapter, I will explore the place of community in the World Heritage system and the related practices of its constituent bodies. Lip service to the importance of communities is readily paid here, partly as a reaction to the challenge of the younger Convention. However, my main argument is that there is little actual space for communities, at least not for the local communities at World Heritage sites. Moreover, one of the obstacles to bring them in more fully is a muted community, itself a rather localized one, namely the community of the ambassadors and other diplomats representing their countries at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and in the convention meetings.1

2 Community in the World Heritage Convention

5The text of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 1972) has four mentions of “community;” three of them of “international community.” The latter are carried by the powerful utopian idea of the universal sharing of humanity’s most important sites as a kind of global commons, reflecting a general trend in international law around 1970 to elevate humanity in its entirety to the position of a rights-holder (Wolfrum 2009). I see this as rather distinct from the 2003 Convention, where every “cultural expression” is believed to be linked to an identifiable – if often rather large – community, and humanity in its entirety comes in only in second place, as a kind of guardian angel hovering over the rightful owner and not as a fully fledged co-owner. This is different from the way World Heritage sites are construed as everyone’s heritage in the 1972 Convention, and in the World Heritage meetings, the international community or community of humankind also features through frequent use of an unspecified yet morally loaded “we.” In the 2012 World Heritage Committee session in St. Petersburg, for example, the German ambassador to UNESCO, moved by the Malinese Cultural Minister’s tearful report of the ongoing Islamist mutilations of the Timbuktu World Heritage properties, called for a moment of silence, arguing that “we must interrupt our work for this one minute.” This “we” left open whether it embraced only the Committee delegates and those present in the hall, or rather humanity as a whole, as the Convention, in the words of the ambassador, had lost one of its parents and one of its children. The fourth mention in the World Heritage Convention text seems to index local communities when the “States Parties” (i.e. signatory states, with a double plural and capitalized) are exhorted to “adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community” (UNESCO 1972: article 5.1). So community in the actual and grounded sense is there, but certainly not to the extent in which communities are highlighted, even enshrined, in the 2003 Convention.

6In recent years, however, the World Heritage arena has been striving to catch up. The strategic objectives of the Convention ceremonially proclaimed at the 30th anniversary celebration in 2002 – the so-called “four Cs” of credibility, conservation, capacity-building, and communication – had a “fifth C” for community added in the 2007 Committee session on the initiative of the host, New Zealand. The communities to be involved in World Heritage activities were specified as indigenous, traditional or local ones (decisions 31 COM 13A and 31 COM 13B),2 meaning that they are not of the merely virtual or “imagined” type and are also more circumscribed than the international community. The 40th anniversary in 2012 was celebrated under the overall theme “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: The Role of Local Communities” (decision 35 COM 12D, paragraph 4). A lunchtime side event in the 2012 Committee session explored “World Heritage Involving Communities: Concepts and Actions,” and a vice-president of ICOMOS – the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an international membership organization of conservationists that advises the World Heritage Committee on cultural heritage – insisted that all World Heritage sites are, first and forever, local places. Instead of trying to involve the site communities which have often been actively engaged with the sites for a long time, she exhorted us to work to involve ourselves; certainly, her own Australian experience with indigenous heritage came in here. The 2011 revised manual for the preparation of World Heritage nominations, prepared jointly by the secretariat of the Convention (the World Heritage Center within UNESCO headquarters in Paris) and the advisory bodies, urges States Parties to ensure that “proceeding with World Heritage nominations […] is worthwhile for both the conservation of the property and the well-being of local communities and other local stakeholders” (UNESCO 2011: 6). ICOMOS also champions a “rights-based approach to heritage” now, and the rights meant are those of local communities (Sinding-Larsen 2012). All these official pronouncements agree that World Heritage properties, aside from being globally significant heritage sites, are also community spaces. No conservation without or against these communities is possible, and their wish to draw benefits from the sites is legitimate.

7Part of this discursive turn can be explained with the general romanticism for community (Joseph 2002) in the cold realities of the neoliberal age, but a good deal is also due to what I think is the influence of the 2003 Convention. It is difficult to shut out community from the World Heritage Convention when it is celebrated so much in the other popular UNESCO Heritage Convention, and it is also no easy task for the unspecialized diplomats who represent their states at the statutory meetings of both Conventions to keep them apart conceptually. There is, thus, a piecemeal diffusion of rhetoric and practices between the two Conventions that belies their formal independence, much as the general public also tends to conflate them, often by subsuming both under the World Heritage label.

3 Obstacles to Community Involvement in World Heritage Meetings

8Beyond the abstract praise for community, however, one hears surprisingly little in the Committee sessions about the communities living at or near World Heritage sites. I think that there are four structural reasons for this. The first is time pressure: While session time is dominated by the discussion of individual sites which occupies about two-thirds of the 10 or 11 meeting days, there are 981 properties on the World Heritage List as of 2013, some of them consisting not only of single sites, but whole series of separate components. A further 15 to 30 properties are added each year. In 2012, the Committee took decisions on all 35 properties on the List of World Heritage in Danger and another 107 properties with conservation issues. In addition, it examined 49 nominations or proposed extensions of World Heritage properties, making for a total of 191 cases. Even this number would be unmanageable if most decisions, particularly on problematic sites, were not taken without discussion by simply adopting the draft decision prepared by the World Heritage Center, ICOMOS and IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global organization of conservation agencies and NGOs, which advises the Committee on the natural sites). When the debate about a site is opened, it can be over within minutes, so that participants often hear very little about the sites, let alone the communities living there.

9The second reason is the work load of the World Heritage system, partly a function of intense cost pressure. The World Heritage Center must rely on temporary “consultants” and interns to a degree that some of its permanent staff find worrying, and ICOMOS, in particular, cannot pay competitive wages to the experts consulted for desk reviews, inspection missions to the sites and drafting the evaluation texts. Both secretariat and advisory bodies are fully occupied by their statutory duties, and what they do in terms of fact-finding about the sites or liaising with the communities there usually reacts to input from outside, rather than following a self-defined agenda. All this has been further aggravated by the US pullout after the UNESCO General Conference accepted Palestine as a new member in 2011, resulting in a budget cut of 22 percent. The systematic collection of any information about the sites is, thus, a challenge, and this applies all the more to site communities.

10This is because – the third obstacle – the communities at World Heritage sites and their destinies are not the Convention rationale. Instead, it is the physical conservation of the sites and the buildings, natural features, or wildlife found on them. While past communities are often the creators of what is significant in the sites and are believed to establish the “outstanding universal value” (OUV) required for an inscription on the World Heritage List, present-day local populations often come in only as a disturbing factor, as those who build the high-rises and bridges in old towns or who log, poach or illegally cultivate in the nature reserves. It is then protection “from,” rather than “for,” the communities that moves to the forefront.

  • 3 See, for instance, the ICOMOS evaluation of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain in Vanuatu where an “oral histo (...)

11The case is slightly different with the increasingly popular category of Cultural Landscapes introduced in 1992 (Gfeller 2013; Rössler 2006). Here, human interaction with the landscape is constitutive for OUV. In the ICOMOS evaluations and the “statements of OUV” adopted by the Committee, there is a certain tendency to romanticize communities and their relationship with the land. This applies particularly to the “anthropological” realm of myths, oral history and ritual practices linked to the site, where the often rather sweeping claims in the nomination files are taken at face value by ICOMOS whose conservationist members have backgrounds more in architecture, art history or archaeology.3 When the interaction between people and sites is ongoing and physically shapes and maintains the landscape, such as in wine regions or rice terraces, the activities of communities are practically needed for conservation. Even here, however, the manuals and programmatic texts prepared by the World Heritage Center and ICOMOS (e.g. Mitchell et al. 2009) focus on communities most of all as a tool. It is important to involve them, but they are construed neither as the supreme experts about the sites nor their rightful owners.

12The most important obstacle, however, is that World Heritage is the object of a convention between nation states. The decision to nominate a site is a prerogative of States Parties and their governments. The Committee as the supreme decision-making organ is assisted by the World Heritage Center, ICOMOS and IUCN, but it is itself an intergovernmental body composed of 21 nation states, elected for staggered terms of currently four years by all treaty states. While the Convention asks for experts to be sent to the meetings, these states are sovereign as to whom they choose as their representatives, and often, World Heritage experience is no criterion of selection. In this environment, the nation-state version of what happens at the sites is the default version, which requires a conscious challenge to dislodge it (for similar observations in other UN fora, see Billaud forthcoming; Cowan 2013; Fresia 2013). When this version is called into question in the Committee meetings, the State Party’s view often prevails because of the general mood of friendliness where, compared to other UN arenas, such as the Security Council, the stakes are not quite so high. There is also intense lobbying and trading of favors between the state delegations, particularly since the 2010 session (Brumann 2011; Meskell 2013b, 2014). Depending on the democratic situation in the respective state, a delegation’s version may actually be obliged to incorporate community viewpoints, but obviously, the extent to which it does so varies widely between the states.

13Live voices from site communities are not a routine part of session proceedings. They may play an indirect role in the nomination process and in the inspection missions dispatched to evaluate candidate sites and to monitor the state of conservation of the already inscribed sites, but then, they reach the Committee only in the processed form of dry and slightly bureaucratic reports, not directly. Self-declared eye witnesses venture to report site conditions during the sessions, but they are rarely part of site communities: A recurring phenomenon in recent sessions have been the delegates who claim to have just visited the site under discussion and, on this basis, deny the problems found by the World Heritage Center, ICOMOS and IUCN. Yet for site communities, there is no provision that would give them a routine role in the Committee sessions.

14Such communities can resort to other ways to transmit their views and grievances, for example, by appealing to the center and the advisory bodies. A lot of whistle-blowing reaches these organizations and prompts them to ask the States Parties for “SOC reports” (state of conservation reports) and to invite monitoring missions. It is also possible for site community representatives to participate in the Committee sessions proper, most commonly as part of their state delegation, and they will then sometimes be recognizable by wearing traditional dress rather than the business attire of almost everyone else. As the States Parties of the candidates and sites do not have a special role to begin with, do not give a presentation of their nomination or site, and are, at least in principle, given the floor only when asked specific questions by Committee members, these community representatives then typically become visible only when an inscription has taken place. Then, small clusters of cheering, hugging and waving people form in the hall, disrupting the bureaucratic and often slightly dull atmosphere of the proceedings, and delegates from other States Parties walk over to offer their congratulations. Community representatives sometimes also feature in the short acceptance speeches given by a State Party delegation after a new inscription on the World Heritage List. They may then say a few words themselves, such as an inhabitant of the Western Ghats in India who asserted how overjoyed everyone at home was about their World Heritage inscription in the Committee session of 2012, or their presence in the hall may be emphasized, such as when, in the same session, after the inscription of seven decorated farmhouses in Hälsingland, the Swedish delegate mentioned that several of the proud inhabitants of these houses were sitting next to him.

15All this is at the mercy of state delegations, however, and when local communities want to present a dissenting viewpoint, this is usually more difficult. Participation as an observer in the sessions is principally possible, as is being given the floor by the chairperson, but even when the challenges of travel and accommodation are mastered, there is no guidance for the uninitiated how to access the meetings and when and how to ask for the floor, creating considerable uncertainty and reliance on gatekeepers, who themselves are state delegates or secretariat staff. When a community representative manages to overcome these hurdles, speaking time is limited to two minutes, not the three minutes of States Parties, and non-state delegates may usually speak only once and at the end, whereas State Party delegates are often given the floor repeatedly. That the latter are also much more experienced in the expected discourse goes without saying. All this means that I witnessed only a handful of such dissenting interventions, usually from participants of the richer countries, such as France, and they seemed to have a very limited effect on the Committee debate.

16Therefore, in sum, site communities end up relegated to the sidelines in an intergovernmental forum where state representatives meet, jealously guarding their national sovereignty. On the basis of mutuality, they are reluctant to challenge the default assumption that other state delegates and the national governments behind them legitimately represent their citizens’ views, including those of the site communities.

4 The Indigenous Challenge

17The most sustained challenge to nation-state control has come from indigenous activists. As early as the late-1990s, the World Heritage Committee was accused of ignoring indigenous rights, particularly in the drawn-out conflict about the Jabiluka mine in the Australian World Heritage property of Kakadu National Park (Logan 2013). In the 2000 Committee session in Cairns, Australia, demands for setting up an additional advisory body to the Convention, the World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE), were raised, enjoying the support of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. A working group was entrusted with a feasibility study. However, when presenting the results to the Committee in Helsinki the following year, these were virtually shredded to pieces, particularly by China and India who, generally wary of indigeneity for fear of encouraging separatism, usually argue that this is a problem of postcolonial settler states, not of countries like theirs where everyone is indigenous. No further funding for exploring WHIP-COE was budgeted, and with that, the idea was effectively aborted (Meskell 2013a).

18Yet things have moved on, particularly with the adoption of the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the activities of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), a consultative body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that meets every year at UN Headquarters in New York (on this significant development and the challenge that indigenous “peoples” present for a state-based world order, see Bellier 2013; Muehlebach 2001; Oldham and Frank 2008; Peterson 2010). Recent interventions coming from the Permanent Forum have kept targeting the World Heritage system. In both 2011 and 2012, the Committee and UNESCO received a joint statement by more than 70 NGOs for indigenous rights which deplores an insufficient implementation of UNDRIP in the context of the World Heritage Convention. In particular, the two statements complained that the “free, prior and informed consent” of the indigenous inhabitants of a World Heritage candidate site is not regularly sought, contrary to the stipulations of UNDRIP, where it is mandatory for any activities significantly affecting indigenous territories.4 Three nominations up for decision in 2011 – the Western Ghats in India, the Kenyan Lake System in the Rift Valley (in particular Lake Bogoria) and the Sangha Trinational Nature Reserve straddling Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Congo – were singled out as cases in point. In addition, the statements demanded regular consultations and the resumption of the WHIPCOE idea of a permanent consultative body. Permanent Forum representatives now regularly attend Committee meetings, and NGOs representing indigenous rights made short but rather critical statements in both the 2011 and the 2012 session.

19This change of the tide has not been entirely ignored. No. 62 of the official periodical World Heritage Review was dedicated to “World Heritage and Indigenous Peoples” in 2012 and featured an interview with the Permanent Forum Chair, Myrna Cunningham, who voices moderately phrased criticism (Sinding-Larsen 2012: 54–57), and the commitment of ICOMOS to a rights-based approach mentioned above (58–60). There is also every readiness now to celebrate indigenous cultures when these are part of the significance of cultural landscapes, as already mentioned above. The category was very much conceptualized around such cases to begin with, and the two first nominations were for Tongariro National Park in New Zealand and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Ayers Rock) in Australia, that is, sites already on the list as Natural Heritage which because of their supreme spiritual importance for indigenous groups, were then also inscribed for their cultural dimension in 1993 and 1994, respectively.

20State delegations also feel compelled to react to the charges. As already mentioned, the Indian ambassador to UNESCO had a jubilant local give the acceptance speech for the Western Ghats, an unusual step that was clearly meant to show that local communities did not all resist the listing. The Kenyan ambassador in 2012 denied all accusations concerning Lake Bogoria and declared her government’s readiness to engage in a direct dialogue. The Australian delegation, against which no complaints had been raised, took the occasion of the acceptance of a small extension to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Site to let an Aboriginal representative speak, first in his indigenous language and then in English, and the Russian chairperson duly declared her delight about this “gift” to the Committee, without saying what exactly the gift was. Somewhat accidentally, on the last day of the 2011 session in Paris, in an almost empty hall and with a few dozen tired delegates only half aware of what they were doing, the Committee adopted a decision encouraging States Parties to involve indigenous peoples and local populations in decision-making, monitoring and the evaluation of World Heritage candidates and sites and to respect their rights (decision 35 COM 12 E, paragraph 15ef). The IUCN evaluation of Sangha Trinational in 2011, clearly underlines the principal compatibility of indigenous park use with World Heritage status as a nature reserve, expresses concern about the fact that two of the three nominating countries do not acknowledge it, and wonders why the possibility of a mixed natural and cultural nomination had not been considered (document 35 COM INF.8B2, English version, pp. 5–12). The IUCN evaluation of the Western Ghats in 2012 also mentions allegations that indigenous rights had been passed over, calling for respecting UNDRIP (document 36 COM INF.8B2, English version, pp. 53–59).

21The receptiveness to indigenous concerns is certainly growing, particularly in programmatic texts and among the advisory bodies and the Center, and quite a few state delegations on and off the Committee are sympathetic or have at least learned to give this impression. Yet, when the concerned State Party claims that all is well, it usually prevails nonetheless. The Kenyan Lake System was listed in 2011 and the Western Ghats and the Sangha Trinational followed in 2012. This was not just because of the state delegations and their self-interested lobbying, since IUCN also compromised in its second evaluation of Sangha Trinational in 2012: While noting that the revised nomination file still did not consider cultural heritage and that indigenous inhabitants had found the consultation process with government authorities wanting, it nonetheless recommended inscription on the World Heritage List, suggesting that the large buffer zone around the park might provide an alternative basis for indigenous livelihoods (36 COM INF.8B2, English version, pp. 40–49). Obviously, getting a nature reserve of 750,000 hectares on the World Heritage List – the single most powerful designation for nature conservation, as an IUCN representative told me – was too good to resist. Additionally, the relatively progressive and half-accidental Committee decision of 2011 mentioned above only “encourages” states to respect indigenous rights and does not make this mandatory, and indigenous empowerment through an independent consultative body along WHIPCOE lines is nowhere in sight at this point.

22Therefore, in sum, World Heritage site communities continue to remain outside the picture painted about the sites during the World Heritage Committee sessions or are only in it to the degree that their nation state wants them to be. The general trend of indigenous empowerment on the UN level will certainly keep the issue on the agenda, but any change is likely to be piecemeal rather than dramatic.

5 Communities of Meeting Participants, Experts, and Diplomats

23There is, however, a further factor that the local communities at World Heritage sites are also up against, and this is the communities in the World Heritage arena proper. One could see the entire World Heritage Committee session comprising more than 1,000 participants – coming with the state delegations, the World Heritage Centre, the advisory bodies, or as observers for other organizations – as a community or rather as communitas in Victor Turner’s classic sense (1969: 94–203). Communitas refers not so much to the long-standing communities in everyday life, but to the spontaneous bonding and breakdown of pre-established hierarchies between the participants in extraordinary group experiences, such as rituals, pilgrimages or military basic training, that form the liminal interstices between stable everyday social situations. Indeed, this global event with its many and often lavish receptions, cultural performances, guided tours, meals, and after hours in bars, bringing together a highly international crowd from more than 150 countries and graced by the presence of government ministers and other dignitaries, certainly has a liminal and festive atmosphere to it. It could hardly be more distinct from what at least the non-diplomatic participants are used to in their everyday lives, and it brings them into a situation where many of their usual routines no longer apply and where, at least outside the meeting hall with its clear seating order, relative rank and importance is not always immediately obvious, making everyone equal.

24Communitas also arises spontaneously within more circumscribed subsets of participants: During the 2012 Committee session in St. Petersburg, for example, I stayed in the eponymic hotel which, in a very expensive city, was one of the few choices covered by my research budget. Very much for the same reason, it had also attracted a motley crew of other delegates from the not quite so affluent countries, such as Chile, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Namibia, and Kenya. Jointly grappling with the many idiosyncrasies of the hotel and jointly waiting and chatting on the shuttle bus rides to the meeting venues and back, while taking care that nobody in the group was left behind, created a vague sense of belonging together. One night when the shuttle bus driver was checking the destination hotels after one of the receptions, the group members spontaneously started to chant their hotel name, somewhat like in a football stadium, to everyone’s incredulous delight. Another expression of communitas I repeatedly witnessed, also in the shuttle buses, was what one could call Committee joking: One participant started to apply the technical terms and typical phrases heard during the day to the World Heritage sites and processes to an unlikely subject, asking for comparative evaluations, statements of OUV, inscription criteria, or management plans for such things as the hotels, food served, female passers-by, or participants in the group, and immediately, others were picking up on this, each trying to better the previous joke. Part of the escalating merriment was certainly due to everyone’s awareness that this kind of fun would be completely lost on anyone who has never sat in a Committee meeting, an experience which they, despite their very diverse nationalities and professional backgrounds, all shared.

25The participants in their entirety, or at least significant portions, can also become enmeshed in a communitas of shared emotion. I have elsewhere described the difficulty of the Committee during the St. Petersburg session to break its procedural routines and react to the destruction of World Heritage tombs and mosques in Timbuktu by the Islamist insurgents then in control of northern Mali; an act of defiance against UNESCO after the Committee had put these sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger a few days earlier (Brumann forthcoming). Even with what was a slow reaction, however, the Malinese Cultural Minister’s tears touched many participants, and the sadness expressed in the session debate, when publicly reading an appeal in front of the media or in a small reception in the presence of the minister, appeared genuine.

26While such spontaneous community sentiments end with the session, there are also the more durable ones formed by the Committee regulars. The most stable community is that of the heritage experts, or rather, the two communities of cultural and natural heritage experts, with some having connections in both. Many among the advisory body personnel, the State Party delegates and the specialized Center staff have known each other for years, even decades, and have met countless times at the sessions and General Assemblies, the string of expert meetings on specific topics held throughout the year around the world, the meetings and conferences of the advisory bodies and their national and thematic sub-groupings, the training sessions for site managers, the evaluation and monitoring missions to the sites, the workshops that candidate sites organize in order to prepare their nominations, and – last but not least – parties, such as the “Green Machine” gathering of the nature experts that takes place at each session. Some have also changed sides in the course of time, working for more than one of the participating organizations. This community of experts was very much in charge of World Heritage policies and decisions up until the late 1990s. While there is no reason to assume that national interests, lobbying and the swapping of favors played no role back then, this community shares a commitment to conservation, and the experts usually have some first-hand knowledge of the sites which, at least in some cases, may extend to familiarity with site communities. Experts being experts, this community was certainly not obsessed with the participation of lay communities and indigenous rights, but the WHIPCOE idea, for example, emerged with it. Were it still in command today, I think that there would be more openness to community empowerment.

27However, as I have traced more fully elsewhere (Brumann 2014), the experts are no longer at the helm. Since the late 1990s when the meetings grew into global events and World Heritage became a household name, ordinary career diplomats have taken over, and, particularly in the western states, many of these have backgrounds in unrelated fields such as law. It is increasingly the ambassadors, that is, the nation states’ permanent delegates to UNESCO, that head the delegations and speak most of the time. They are practiced and polyglot public speakers, and, most of all, they are experienced negotiators who know that every favor requires a return.

28During the Committee session, these UNESCO ambassadors celebrate their own community, as a recognizable subset of the wider community of all participants, to the degree that the latter arises. The ambassadors’ mutual acquaintance is significantly shorter than that of the experts and may only go back a few years or even months. Their interaction in UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where some of them also have their offices, is rather intense, however, and includes everything falling under UNESCO purview, not just heritage. Among themselves, they use first names, and there is much ostentatious friendliness with wide-armed hugs and cheek-kissing put on display at the many social events and receptions in Paris and during the evenings of the Committee sessions. Social dancing with each other at the reception after having fought intensely during the day is by no means beyond them. Exuding an unmistakable air of being in control of the game, they draw subtle distinctions, such as by referring to each other during the session as “my honorable/esteemed colleague from (country X),” a practice that non-ambassadors never engage in. Even those ambassadors who insist on proper procedure during the sessions and are immune to horse-trading will usually not challenge this consensus of behaving as an elite circle of international friends, in an exercise of conspicuous intimacy. Of course, the usual weight classes of international politics also apply at UNESCO, but, at least in terms of social etiquette, much effort is being put into behaving as if this were an undifferentiated group of peers.

29This elite circle provides an ideal ground for lobbying one’s own nation-state viewpoint and making deals, certainly more smoothly than between people who meet less frequently and are more of a virtual community than this one that is very localized in the upscale part of the Parisian Rive Gauche that houses the UNESCO buildings. Rather naturally then, these deals of mutual support privilege nation-state interests to defend which the diplomats are seconded to UNESCO, after all. Given that they are not particularly committed to heritage to begin with, their objectives are often different from those of the experts, and in those cases where they are not under orders anyway, contributing to world peace, friendly intergovernmental relations or global equity may be more important to them than the conservation of a given heritage site.

30This diplomatic community may have passed its prime in the Committee sessions, however. As part of the half-accidental decision of 2011, full press access and an internet live-stream was decided for future sessions. When this was put into effect in 2012, some Committee delegations were suspected of being under remote control from their home ministries by others, receiving text messages with detailed instructions what to say next. One delegate was rumored to have been ordered home immediately when what he said infuriated the head of state of a neighboring country who watched the live-stream and then complained to his colleague in office, the delegate’s president. I expect that this unanticipated consequence of transparency will constrain the diplomats’ freedom of negotiation among peers and will gradually turn them into mere mouthpieces of distant governments.

6 Conclusion

31Following general trends, but also egged on by the new rival of the 2003 Convention, the organizations within the arena of the World Heritage Convention have stepped up efforts in recent years to acknowledge community and, more specifically, the local communities living in or near World Heritage properties. There is a readiness now to celebrate the term and its assumed referent, social intimacy in small-scale groupings, and this includes indigenous communities which for a long time were perceived as a challenge to a multilateral arena based on exchanges between sovereign nation states. There is no denying that the mood has shifted in significant ways and no longer allows for too blunt expressions of raison d’êtat; the World Heritage Committee cannot completely ignore that which the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention has ennobled to such a high degree.

32However, even though the likes of India or Australia now feel compelled to put community representatives on strategic display during the sessions, the agency of site communities in the World Heritage sessions remains constrained. This is partly due to time pressure, the work load of the convention secretariat and advisory bodies, and the fact that the Convention aims to protect the cultural and natural wonders of the sites, but not the communities living there. More significantly, the Convention is a treaty between nation states that, on the basis of reciprocity, are reluctant to challenge one another’s sovereignty, given also that backing another state delegation’s version of on-site realities may be reciprocated by support for one’s own delegation’s version when needed. The actual representatives of site communities are often lost as to how to make their concerns heard on the global stage, at least when they are not shepherded by their own state delegations to play rather staged parts. In many cases, the national level is the more promising arena or, more precisely, the only arena where they can hope to achieve anything at all.

33There is a community in place for sustaining this modus vivendi, that of the diplomats seconded to UNESCO by their nation states who form a short-term, certainly instrumental, but also rather close-knit and conspicuously displayed social microcosm at the Parisian headquarters. This community has eclipsed the more durable community of heritage experts which increasingly occupies the back seats of state delegations and whose recommendations, when coming from the World Heritage Center and the advisory bodies, are overruled with ever less compunction. While the community of ambassadors and diplomats is an undeclared one and may itself fall prey to the possibility of long-distance monitoring that live-streaming the session on the internet has opened up, for the time being, it remains much more decisive for World Heritage decision-making than the local communities populating the almost 1,000 World Heritage properties.

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1 Using an ethnographic approach, I have combined participant observation of the official sessions of the World Heritage Committee (the intergovernmental body in charge of implementing the convention), the General Assemblies of the 190 signatory states and other statutory meetings; interviews with key actors from all participating organizations; and a study of the documentary record, mainly between 2009 and 2012 (Brumann 2012). For similar research strategies, see Groth 2012 and Müller 2013, and for ethnographic studies of World Heritage Site communities, see Breglia 2006, Hauser-Schäublin 2011, Joy 2011, Probst 2011, and Salamandra 2004, among others.

2 The World Heritage Committee decisions do not have URLs, but can be retrieved from <accessed February 21, 2014> or simply by a general web search for the document code. The document codes are provided in parentheses in the following text.

3 See, for instance, the ICOMOS evaluation of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain in Vanuatu where an “oral history,” unspecified in its social scope and temporal depth, is identified as the source of indisputable authenticity (, p. 95 <accessed February 21, 2014>), despite the weak connection of the sites to the historical figure of the last paramount chief; or the similar justification of site authenticity in the ICOMOS evaluation of Le Morne Cultural Landscape in Mauritius
(, p. 3 <accessed February 21, 2014>). This is not to question the validity of the claims, but rather to point out the absence of critical examination in the evaluations.

4 <accessed February 21, 2014>.


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