World Archaeological Congress in Jordan


Keynote Address 



The Right to World Heritage?

Lynn Meskell, Director, Stanford Archaeology Center, Stanford University

This year marks the 40th anniversary of UNESCO’s 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It remains the only international instrument for safeguarding the world’s heritage. This presentation takes UNESCO as its centerpiece and asks how are emergent rights to the past being presented, promoted and prevented by particular actors internationally? Specifically I draw from recent developments involving UNESCO’s recognition of Palestine, the ensuing United States financial withdrawal, the crisis in Mali, and the continued challenges to indigenous authority by State Parties on the World Heritage Committee. One of UNESCO’s millennium challenges was the very issue of sovereignty in an increasingly transnational world and in the face of indigenous claims and rights that often conflict with nation states. While UNESCO was forged on the liberal principles of diplomacy, tolerance and development after the devastation of WWII, today statist agendas have come to eclipse substantive consideration of both global heritage and local communities. 

As archaeologists we typically presume that the power to confer heritage rights and recognition largely resides with UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters. However, as an inter-governmental body and part of the United Nations, signatory states are the in fact most powerful decision makers in the world heritage arena. States Parties have most to gain in the geopolitical machinations and voting blocs that have emerged in the last few years. Not only do nations garner international and national prestige, financial assistance and benefit from heightened public awareness, tourism and economic development – they leverage heritage for strategic economic and political trade-offs for military, religious, and geographical advantage. The structural failures to foreground minority rights, indigenous perspectives and to implement change within the World Heritage system are underwritten by nation-state desires, colonial alignments and new imperialisms.