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World Heritage at the Heart of UNESCO’s Peace Mandate

© UNESCO, Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)

In the popular imagination, UNESCO World heritage sites are often equated with dreams and beauty. And yet, the outstanding value of a World Heritage site is first and foremost assessed according to the principles of sustainable development, authenticity, environment, scientific conservation, identity, and the history of peoples. This role distinguishes itself markedly in the determination of sites of memory, and UNESCO must meet the immense challenge of uniting peoples on an unprecedented scale in order to pave a path towards peace. Our common heritage is  poignantly revealed in some of the most tragic events of human history.

On January 27th, 2013, UNESCO is organizing  International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this very day in 1945, the Soviet forces liberated the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland. In 1979, the World Heritage Committee inscribed the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau – German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940 – 1945) on the World Heritage List, thus recognizing its exceptional universal value.

© UNESCO, Auschwitz Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)

UNESCO’s mandate demands not only that it facilitates the transmission of history, but that it also takes cognizance of projects made solely of hatred in order to transform them into instruments of peace. Blight with the atrocities that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people and other minorities, the Auschwitz camp stands as testimony to one of the most dreadful episodes in the history of the 20th century, and as proof of the conditions under which the Nazis executed their horrific genocide.

© UNESCO, Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

According to the principles set out in the selection criteria (vi), among the ten that apply for inscription on the list, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO also designated four other sites as representative of events both vital to collective memory and symbolic of the universal values associated with heritage.

  • The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan constitutes a supreme place of remembrance of the disaster that occurred with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. The Genbaku dome stands as the last vestige of this catastrophe, and it was the inhabitants of Hiroshima themselves who so carefully preserved this site, which was inscribed upon the list in 1996.
  • The island of Gorée in Senegal is considered one of the places most emblematic of the Slave trade. Inscribed upon the list in 1975, the island has preserved the houses of slaves and the door of “the journey with no return,” through which those subjected to slavery, stripped of their most fundamental human dignity, embarked upon boats bound for the Americas. 

© UNESCO, Robben Island

  • Robben Island in South Africa, has been over the centuries the place of racist and social persecutions towards minority groups, until the XXth century with the prison for political opponents under the regime of Apartheid, where Nelson Mandela was detained for nearly 20 years.
  • The Old Bridge Area of the old city of Mostar was critically damaged, and its old bridge destroyed, during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. Reconstructed thanks to the efforts of the international community, this site serves as a symbol of the reconciliation of communities of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, as well as of human solidarity in the search for peace.

© UNESCO, Island of Gorée

These places remind us of the fundamental principles of UNESCO, contained in its constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” As witnesses of painful events in the history of humanity, these sites serve as bulwarks against negationism and force us to draw lessons from the past in order to construct a more peaceful future. They also serve to build bridges between peoples and to help them surmount the traumas of the past. More than ever, and as we face a time of rising extremism, UNESCO is working so that World Heritage traces a new map for peace.

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