• International Processes and Initiatives

Indigenous World 2019: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention

The Convention concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage (“World Heritage Convention”) was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1972. With 193 States Parties, it is today one of the most widely ratified multilateral treaties. Its main purpose is the identification and collective protection of cultural and natural heritage sites of “outstanding universal value” (OUV). The Convention embodies the idea that some places are so special and important that their protection is not only the responsibility of the states in which they are located, but also a duty of the international community as a whole.

The implementation of the Convention is governed by the World Heritage Committee (WHC), an intergovernmental committee consisting of 21 States Parties. The WHC keeps a list of the sites it considers to be of OUV (“World Heritage List”) and monitors the conservation of these sites to ensure that they are protected for future generations. Sites can only be listed following a formal nomination by the State Party in whose territory they are situated, and are classified as either natural, cultural or mixed World Heritage sites.

Although many World Heritage sites are fully or partially located in indigenous peoples’ territories, there is a lack of regulations and appropriate mechanisms to ensure the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in Convention processes and decisions affecting them. In 2015, the WHC inserted some references to indigenous peoples into the Convention’s Operational Guidelines, however, the Guidelines do not make the involvement of affected indigenous peoples an obligation to states.

The WHC is supported by a secretariat (the World Heritage Centre) and three advisory bodies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) provide technical evaluations of World Heritage nominations and help in monitoring the state of conservation of World Heritage sites. The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) provides advice and training related to cultural sites. An indigenous proposal to establish a “World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts” (WHIPCOE) as an additional advisory body was rejected by the WHC in 2001.

Adoption of the UNESCO Policy on Engaging with Indigenous Peoples

As noted in The Indigenous World 2016, an important step towards enhancing the role of indigenous peoples in the implementation of the Convention was taken in 2015, when the General Assembly of States Parties adopted a comprehensive policy for integrating a sustainable development perspective into the processes of the Convention.[1] Additionally, in October 2017 the Executive Board of UNESCO approved a UNESCO Policy on Engaging with Indigenous Peoples, which:

  • Reaffirms that “consistent with Article 41 of the UNDRIP, UNESCO, as a specialized agency of the UN, is committed to the full realization of the provisions of the Declaration [and seeks to] implement the UNDRIP across all relevant programme areas;”[2]
  • Underscores that “protecting and promoting culture in all its diversity […] requires the effective involvement of all actors and stakeholders concerned and, in particular, indigenous peoples, who are recognized as stewards of a significant part of the world’s biological, cultural and linguistic diversity;”
  • Recognizes that the governing bodies of UNESCO’s Culture Conventions, such as the WHC, “can play an important role in developing relevant standards, guidance and operational mechanisms to ensure full and effective participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples in the processes of these instruments;”
  • Affirms that UNESCO is committed to respecting, protecting and promoting indigenous peoples’ “rights related to culture, cultural integrity and identity, and […] to full and effective participation in all matters affecting their lives and cultures [including their] right to be consulted regarding activities that concern their heritage and cultural expression;”
  • Notes that indigenous peoples “should be able to take part in the development of policies concerning their cultures, cultural expressions and heritage, including through effective participation in relevant consultative bodies and coordination mechanisms [and that] all interactions with regard to their future development should be characterized by transparent collaboration, dialogue, negotiation and consultation.”

In relation to cultural and natural heritage sites specifically, the UNESCO Policy:

  • States that “Many natural and cultural heritage sites constitute home to or are located within land managed by indigenous peoples, whose land use, knowledge and cultural and spiritual values and practices may depend on, shape or constitute part of the heritage. In such places, indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional lands, territories and resources, and are partners in site conservation and protection activities that recognize traditional management systems as part of new management approaches;”
  • Recommends that in and around such heritage sites, conservation and management policies, interventions and practices should “recognize, respect, and take into account the spiritual and cultural values, the interconnections between biological and cultural diversity as well as cultural and environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples [and] ensure adequate consultations, the free, prior and informed consent and equitable and effective participation of indigenous peoples where nomination, management and policy measures of international designations affect their territories, lands, resources and ways of life;”
  • Underlines that “forced relocation of indigenous peoples from their cultural and natural heritage sites is unacceptable [and notes that] indigenous and local initiatives to develop equitable governance arrangements, collaborative management systems and, when appropriate, redress mechanisms” should be actively promoted;
  • Notes that indigenous peoples “should play a significant role in determining what constitutes threats to their cultural (tangible and intangible) and natural heritage and in deciding how to prevent and mitigate such threats;”
  • Reaffirms that the UNESCO Policy is meant to “guide the Organization’s work, in all areas of its mandate, that involve or are relevant for indigenous peoples and of potential benefit or risk to them [and to] support the efforts of the Secretariat to implement the UNDRIP across all relevant programme areas.” [3] [4]

Prior to the approval of the policy, the WHC has decided that it would re-examine the role of indigenous peoples in the processes of the World Heritage Convention following the adoption of the UNESCO policy.[5]

Establishment of the “International Indigenous Peoples Forum on World Heritage” (IIPFWH)

A long-standing and ongoing concern of indigenous peoples regarding the World Heritage Convention has been, and continues to be, the lack of appropriate mechanisms to ensure that indigenous peoples can effectively participate in the Convention processes affecting them. Already in 2000, a forum of indigenous peoples held during the WHC session in Cairns, Australia, called for the establishment of a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE) as a consultative body to the WHC, out of concern about the “lack of involvement of indigenous peoples in the development and implementation of laws, policies and plans […] which apply to their ancestral lands within or comprising sites now designated as World Heritage areas.”[6]

Although the proposal was discussed by the WHC at the time, it did not approve the establishment of WHIPCOE as a consultative body or a network to report to.[7] Subsequently, following the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, according to which UN specialized agencies and other intergovernmental organizations shall establish “ways and means of ensuring participation of indigenous peoples on issues affecting them” (Art. 41), the three UN mechanisms on indigenous peoples and other international bodies have repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, called on the WHC to establish a mechanism through which indigenous peoples can provide advice to the WHC, bring concerns to its attention and effectively participate in its decision-making processes affecting them.[8] The International Expert Workshop on the World Heritage Convention and Indigenous Peoples that took place in Copenhagen in 2012 as part of the Convention’s 40th anniversary, recommended that the WHC establish an advisory mechanism consisting of indigenous experts, which “should play a consultative role to the WHC in all processes affecting Indigenous peoples, to ensure that the Indigenous peoples concerned are adequately consulted and involved in these processes and that their rights, priorities, values, and needs are duly recognized, considered and reflected.”[9]

In light of the continued inaction of the WHC, indigenous delegates attending the 41st session of the Committee in Krakow, Poland in 2017, decided to create an “International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage [as a] standing global body aiming to engage with the WHC during its meetings, in order to represent the voices of indigenous peoples with regards to the World Heritage Convention.”[10] The decision to create the Forum was relayed to the WHC, which subsequently recognized the formation of the IIPFWH in a decision that notes “the establishment of the IIPFWH as an important reflection platform on the involvement of Indigenous Peoples in the identification, conservation and management of World Heritage properties.”[11]

The IIPFWH is modelled after similar structures at the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is supposed to be a platform for strategizing and advocacy that is open to all indigenous peoples participating in World Heritage processes. Its overall objectives are to give voice to indigenous peoples and promote respect for their rights in all aspects of the World Heritage Convention. Due to the ever-changing participation of indigenous peoples at the WHC sessions – the extent of indigenous participation very much depends on where a given session takes place and what heritage sites are under discussion – the membership within the IIPFWH is expected to be relatively fluid. Presently the IIPFWH’s activities are coordinated by an interim steering committee involving indigenous experts from different regions, with the organization Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) serving as the interim secretariat.[12]

At least until now, the IIPFWH does not fulfil any official functions under the Convention, nor has its establishment resulted in an enhanced role of indigenous peoples in the WHC’s decision-making processes, which continues to be marginal in many respects. Moreover, given the absence of a funding mechanism, establishing a sustained and effective (ideally regionally balanced and representative) indigenous presence in World Heritage processes presents a significant challenge for the IIPFWH. To date, the WHC, UNESCO and the individual States Parties have not made any funding available to the Forum or announced plans to do so. Nevertheless, UNESCO has described the launch of the IIPFWH as a “major step” in engaging indigenous peoples from around the world in the field of World Heritage, and towards advancing the participation of indigenous peoples in UN processes in accordance with the UN system-wide action plan to achieve the ends of the UNDRIP.[13]

42nd Session of the WHC, Manama, June/July 2018

During the 42nd session of the WHC in Manama, Bahrain, the IIPFWH was formally launched. At a well-attended side-event, representatives of the forum provided an overview of their provisional strategy for a stronger engagement of indigenous peoples with the World Heritage Convention and appealed to the international heritage community to support the Forum’s activities. Attendees included the Director of the World Heritage Centre, Mechtild Rössler, and representatives of the IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM, who all welcomed the establishment of the Forum and expressed their general support.[14]

In the course of the WHC’s session, members of the IIPFWH presented a number of statements to the plenary, both on overarching policy issues and situations at specific World Heritage sites.[15] Among other things, the IIPFWH highlighted the need for the World Heritage Sustainable Development Policy to be followed up with changes to the Operational Guidelines to translate its principles into actual operational procedures. Drawing attention to the adoption of the UNESCO policy on indigenous peoples in October 2017, the IIPFWH suggested that the WHC establish an inter-sessional working group to re-examine the recommendations of the 2012 expert workshop in Copenhagen.[16] The IIPFWH also proposed the establishment of a voluntary fund to facilitate the effective participation of indigenous peoples in World Heritage processes, and criticized that the World Heritage Capacity-Building Strategy does not make any reference to indigenous peoples.[17]

Newly inscribed indigenous sites

The WHC again added several new sites to the World Heritage List that are located in indigenous peoples’ territories. After a deferral in 2013 and a referral in 2016 (see The Indigenous World 2014, 2017), Pimachiowin Aki (Canada), which includes portions of the traditional lands of four Anishinaabe First Nations, was inscribed as a mixed cultural/natural site and a living Aboriginal cultural landscape, in which effective First Nation-led stewardship is important to the continuity of natural and cultural values. The WHC expressed:

Deep appreciation for the combined efforts of the First Nations, working with provincial governments and the State Party, and for the joint dialogue undertaken with IUCN and ICOMOS, in deepening the understanding of nature-culture connections in the context of the World Heritage Convention, and for presenting a revised nomination which is a landmark for properties nominated to the World Heritage List through the commitment of indigenous peoples.[18]

Aasivissuit – Nipisat, Inuit Hunting Ground between Ice and Sea, Greenland, was listed as an “organically evolved and continuing cultural landscape,” the outstanding universal value (OUV) of which is based on “the abundant evidence of culture-nature interactions over several millennia, intact and dynamic natural landscape, intangible cultural heritage and continuing hunting and seasonal movements by Inuit people.”[19]

The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley in Mexico, which is inhabited by eight different indigenous peoples recognized by their languages, was inscribed as a mixed cultural/natural site in recognition of the area’s rich biodiversity and exceptional archeological features, including an ancient irrigation system.[20]

The Bikin National Park in Russia, located in the traditional territory of the Udege and Nanai peoples, was placed on the World Heritage List because of its globally significant biodiversity values, as an extension of the Central Sikhote-Alin natural World Heritage site. The WHC’s decision notes that in 58.1% of Bikin National Park, indigenous peoples are permitted to use natural resources for traditional economic activities, as a way of life and for subsistence, in line with the 2015 federal decree that established the national park and subsequent regulations.[21] The indigenous peoples of the area have welcomed the establishment of the national park and the World Heritage site as a way of protecting their territory from unwanted development, logging, mining and poaching.[22]

Chiribiquete National Park in Colombia, which is home to several indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, was inscribed as a mixed site due to its importance as a wilderness area, its biodiversity, and the cultural significance of indigenous rock art sites inside the property. The WHC’s decision recognizes the need to ensure “respect of rights for the uncontacted tribes living in voluntary isolation [and that] tourism and scientific expeditions are a potential threat to the rights to self-determination, territory and culture of the uncontacted tribes.”

At present, “there is no tourism allowed inside the property and it is important to strictly control any tourism access […] New challenges, for example linked to tourism development, may arise from the inscription of the property which will require continued attention and further investment.” While the decision requests Colombia to “continue the archaeological investigations, the inventorying and the documentation of the rock art sites,” it emphasizes the need for the State Party to “strictly apply the preventive measures in place so as to prevent possible contact between […] external agents and the members of isolated uncontacted communities.”[23]

Fanjingshan (China) was listed as a natural site in recognition of its significant biodiversity, including a high number of endemic and endangered species. There are five villages within the site, with some 2,600 residents, most of whom belong to indigenous peoples such as the Tujia, Miao, and Dong. According to the nomination documents submitted to UNESCO,

During the inscription period, strict protection and management measures were developed, at the beginning, villagers were not used to them [While] traditional planting is still one of the main modes of operation for the indigenous people […] the protection of the nominated property has greatly restricted the natural resource use of the community residents.[24]

The Chinese authorities seek to:

Decrease resource dependence, [decrease] the number of residential areas in the nominated property by reducing permanent population, […] encourage residents to participate in tourism activities, such as tourism development, tourism commodity production, sales and reception, etc., and provide more employment opportunities for residents in the nominated property and the buffer zone.[25]

To support these efforts, the authorities have developed a relocation plan which is included in the nomination documents. While the State Party “asserts that the relocation process is entirely voluntary,” as the IUCN notes in its advisory body evaluation, “neither the nomination, nor the supplementary information, clarify adequately the process followed to ensure that this is the case.”[26] In inscribing Fanjingshan on the World Heritage List, the WHC therefore requested China to:

Clarify the process and measures taken concerning the relocation of residents living within the boundaries of the property to ensure that this process is fully voluntary and in line with the policies of the Convention and relevant international norms, including principles related to free, prior and informed consent, effective consultation, fair compensation, access to social benefits and skills training, and the preservation of cultural rights.[27]

(In contrast, the IUCN had recommended a referral, underlining that these matters “need to be clarified before inscription could be recommended.”)[28]

Noteworthy WHC decisions on the state of conservation of existing World Heritage sites

In a decision on the state of conservation of East Rennell (Solomon Islands), the WHC noted, with utmost concern, a letter by the Tuhunui Tribe of East Rennell raising serious concerns about the practical modalities for customary management and decision-making in the World Heritage site. The letter expressed the tribe’s wish to “withdraw all its customary land” from the World Heritage site, in light of their concern that they are not benefiting from World Heritage status and their opposition to the proposed designation of East Rennell as a protected area under national law. Noting that “the long term conservation of the property’s OUV can only be secured with the full consent of the customary land owners and land users in full respect of their rights,” the decision requests the State Party to invite a UNESCO monitoring mission to facilitate dialogue and “evaluate how the concerns expressed by the customary land owners can be addressed, whilst fully respecting their right to self-determination.”[29]

In another decision, the WHC inscribed Lake Turkana National Park (Kenya) on the List of World Heritage in Danger, due to its utmost concern over the cumulative impacts of the multiple developments in the Lake Turkana Basin on the OUV of the site, including already existing and potential impacts of the Gibe III dam, the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor Project. The impacts of these developments also present a serious threat to the livelihoods of the indigenous communities in the region. The WHC’s decision urges the States Parties of Kenya and Ethiopia to assess the cumulative impacts of the development projects through environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs), and requests Kenya to invite a UNESCO monitoring mission to review the impacts and develop a proposed set of corrective measures.[30]

A decision on the state of conservation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is noteworthy as it fails to express the Committee’s regret at the 2017 killing of a Batwa boy – who had entered the PNKB to forage for honey and medicinal plants – by PNKB park guards. UNESCO and the IUCN had been informed about the incident in a joint letter by a group of NGOs in January 2018.[31] The WHC’s decision once again fails to address the plight of the Batwa who have been evicted from the PNKB and continue to be excluded from accessing their traditional resources inside the park, which has had devastating effects on them and is directly contributing to the impoverishment of their communities. While not taking the security of the Batwa communities and the historic and on-going violations of their human rights into consideration, the WHC’s decision,

[C]ommends the courage of the field staff of the property who exercise their functions under extremely difficult conditions and often at the risk of their lives [and] encourages the State Party, when security permits, to deploy personnel to all the sectors of the property to ensure an effective surveillance.[32]

Other noteworthy WHC decisions

The WHC examined the first draft of a Policy Compendium (see The Indigenous World 2017), and requested the World Heritage Centre to submit a final draft to the WHC in 2019 for examination at its 43rd session.[33] The Policy Compendium is a compilation of existing policies, guidelines and relevant decisions of the WHC and the Convention’s General Assembly, and has special sections on “Indigenous peoples” and on a “Human Rights and Rights-based Approach”. It does not refer to external policies and standards that were developed outside of the Convention, such as the UNDRIP of the UNESCO Policy on Indigenous Peoples, and thus falls short of reflecting on the existing international consensus on indigenous peoples’ rights and the minimum standards to be upheld to secure the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples.

Notes and references

[1] Doc. WHC-15/20.GA/INF.13. For a discussion of the policy, see Disko, S. and Ooft, M. (2018) “The World Heritage and Sustainable Development Policy: a turning point for indigenous peoples?” In: P. Larsen and W. Logan (eds.), World Heritage and Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.

[2] Doc. 202 EX/9, Annex.

[3] UNESCO (2018) UNESCO policy on engaging with indigenous peoples. Paris: UNESCO.

[4] Doc. 202 EX/9, Annex. While UNESCO provides the secretariat for the WHC, a challenge stems from the fact that the WHC, as the governing body of a self-standing multilateral treaty with its own States Parties, may take decisions independently from UNESCO that are contradictory to UNESCO policy, as UNESCO has noted in a 2014 submission to the UNPFII, available at: http://bit.ly/2IIltgw

[5] Decisions 39 COM 11 (2015); 37 COM 12.II (2013).

[6] UNESCO Doc. WHC-2001/CONF.205/WEB.3, p. 2.

[7] Doc. WHC-01/CONF.208/24, p. 57.

[8] See, e.g., the statements of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the 34th and 35th sessions of the WHC in 2010 and 2011 (see: http://bit.ly/2XyqE6i ); EMRIP’s Study on “Promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples with respect to their cultural heritage” (2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/53); EMRIP’s “Proposal 9: World Heritage Committee” (2012, UN Doc. A/HRC/21/52); Resolution 197 of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2011); and Resolution 5.055 of the IUCN World Conservation Congress (2012). For background, see IWGIA’s submission to EMRIP’ study on cultural heritage (2015). Available at: http://bit.ly/2ILEbUq

[9] See the Call to Action of the Copenhagen workshop, available at: http://bit.ly/2T8fsOV  

[10] See the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on World Heritage at IIPFWH, available at: http://bit.ly/2ILGjeS (accessed 25 February 2019).

[11] Decision 41 COM 7.

[12] IIPFWH draft strategic planning document and information brochure, June 2018, available at: http://bit.ly/2ILGjeS

[13] See UNESCO’s questionnaire response submitted to the 18th session of the UNPFII.

[14] See UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Indigenous peoples launch Forum on World Heritage,” available at:  http://bit.ly/2ILv6ej

[15] See IIPFWH publications, available at: http://bit.ly/2IG5QWS  and UNESCO Doc. WHC/18/42 COM/INF.18.

[16] Statement on Item 5A.

[17] Statement on Item 6.

[18] Decision 42 COM 8B.11.

[19] Decision 42 COM 8B.27.

[20] Decision 42 COM 8B.13.

[21] WHC Decision 42 COM 8B.9.

[22] See IWGIA, “Indigenous land in Russia declared World Heritage” available at: http://bit.ly/2IG6GTw ; and Sulyandziga, P. (2017) “Parks and Arbitration”. World Policy Journal, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4.

[23] Decision 42 COM 8B.12.

[24] See UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Fanjingshan,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IMQMqs Supplementary Information, p. 14.

[25] Ibid., Management Plan, pp. 79-82.

[26] Ibid., IUCN evaluation, p. 21.

[27] Decision 42 COM 8B.6.

[28] IUCN evaluation, p. 21.

[29] Decision 42 COM 7A.41.

[30] Decision 42 COM 7B.92. Also see Decision 42 COM 7B.44 on the Lower Valley of the Omo (Ethiopia).

[31] See Forest Peoples Programme, “WHC fails to consider indigenous peoples’ rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IYr1nt ; and the resolution on PNKB of the Civil Society Forum 2018 in Bahrain, available at: http://bit.ly/2ITYfV0

[32] WHC Decision 4e COM 7A.48. Also see Decision 7A.52.

[33] See WHC Decision 42 COM 11 and Doc.

Stefan Disko works as an independent consultant on issues related to indigenous peoples, heritage and human rights. He holds an M.A. in ethnology and international law from LMU Munich and an M.A. in World Heritage Studies from BTU Cottbus.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

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