UNESCO and the World Heritage Game

By Alex Joffe
Monday, July 16, 2012

The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, charges itself with “Building Peace in the minds of men and women,” and its World Heritage Committee claims to safeguard the shared patrimony of the entire human race. According to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, “parts of the cultural or natural heritage are of outstanding interest and therefore need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole.”  Yet the recent UNESCO vote to list of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as Palestine’s first “World Heritage Site” exemplifies how the world heritage game is played, above all for national interest.  The committee consisted of Algeria, Cambodia, Colombia, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. Thirteen voted in favor, with six against and two abstentions.

On its own merits the Church of the Nativity is deserving of global recognition.  Indeed, as one of Christianity’s most important places it already has such status.  Constantine built the first church there around 330 C.E., while the basilica that stands today was built by the emperor Justinian I in 565 C.E., and has largely survived earthquakes, invasions, and modernity.  That Jesus is said to have been born there has transcendent significance for over a billion Christians.

Now it is neither Christendom nor mankind but rather the Palestinian Authority which exercises the right to represent the Church of the Nativity to UNESCO.  Hanan Ashrawi, of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Department of Culture and Information, cast the UNESCO vote in terms that hinted at the true goal, “that Israel must be bound by international law and treaties, particularly pertaining to its illegal and detrimental measures as a belligerent occupant and as a major threat to the safety and the responsible preservation of that important segment of human civilization in Palestine.” Omar Awadallah, head of the UN department at the Palestinian foreign ministry, was more blunt, saying that “it is the first time Palestine has exercised its sovereign right as a nation.”

Chaining various historical and archeological sites to itself as its sole patrimony, and receiving world recognition thereby, has long been part of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy for achieving statehood.  For forty years, UNESCO has been accusing Israel of destroying the Palestinian past and “Judaizing” Jerusalem, the center of Judaism.  As long ago as 1982, the Old City of Jerusalem was listed at Jordan’s behest as a World Heritage Site in danger, and among others, Palestinians have proposed that UNESCO list the ancient Jewish sectarian desert site of Qumran, an Israeli National Park, as a World Heritage Site under its aegis.  Without irony, the Palestinian Authority also seeks to claim Battir—better known as Beitar—the site of the last Jewish fortress to fall during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E.

It will now fall to the PA to arbitrate between the Church’s competing denominations—namely the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church, whose inability to act in concert has precipitated the building’s disrepair.  Christians will patronize the PA for its attentions, even as their coreligionists flee Bethlehem amid a rising tide of Islamism.

The PA also claims jurisdiction over Jewish sites—although it doesn’t acknowledge them to be Jewish.  UNESCO acceded to PA demands to list Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, one of the holiest sites of Jewish pilgrimage for at least a millennium, as the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque, while castigating Israel for declaring it a site of national heritage.

But what will it do for the Church of the Nativity?  It is once again a question of values. UNESCO’s World Heritage status is sometimes extended not simply to individual buildings or sites, but entire landscapes, with the hope that the cachet will give them additional protections from development, as well as enhance their value to tourists.

Yet in a shifting zone of law and culture UNESCO status means little, especially where ideological opposition to the past is unleashed.  In Timbuktu, for example, Islamists are destroying ancient tombs of Muslim saints, for fear that people worshipping at the shrines direct their prayers to the deceased rather than God.  UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has shaken her fist in confusion, saying: “There is no justification for such wanton destruction and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts, to exercise their responsibility and protect this invaluable cultural heritage for future generations.”  But a spokesman for the Ansar Dine (“Defenders of Faith”) in Mali was utterly forthright about the group’s justification: “It’s very simple: It doesn’t correspond to the rules of Islam.”

In response to the destruction, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda stated, “This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate.”  It is, however, fairly inconceivable that Islamist militiamen will stand trial for destroying local monuments.  The world’s outrage and threats did not protect the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan, blown up by the Taliban, or the hippos of the Manovo Gounda St. Floris National Park in the Central African Republic from poachers, or the Chan Chan Archeological Zone in Peru from looters, squatters, wind, or rain.

While UNESCO cannot guarantee the survival of the sites it claims to protect, it does provide useful ammunition for the governments that can hide behind it.  Jews and Christians are unprepared for these politics and for what follows. 

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