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What is World Heritage?

During the 20th century, many cultural heritage sites were damaged in wars and threatened by increasing industrialization and urbanization. Between the two world wars, the League of Nations began working to strengthen the protection of cultural heritage. In 1945, at the end of World War II, the United Nations and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) were established to continue this work. In 1954, the Hague Convention was adopted to protect cultural property during armed conflicts.

When Egypt began constructing the Aswan Dam in 1959, the Abu Simbel temples, built by Ramses II in 1200 BCE, were at risk of being submerged. Egypt and Sudan appealed to UNESCO for help. Following an international campaign, fifty countries contributed the $80 million needed to relocate the temples. This rescue operation highlighted the need for international cooperation in preserving humanity’s cultural heritage. Today, Abu Simbel is part of the World Heritage site “Nubian Monuments.”

Together with the newly formed ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), UNESCO developed a convention to protect the world’s cultural heritage. With the involvement of several environmental groups, the United States worked to include natural heritage in the convention. Nature and culture are sometimes seen as opposites, but in the eyes of the convention, they hold the same value. Heritage does not necessarily have to be ancient; it can also include contemporary sites that represent important phases in human history.

When the World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972 in Paris, the fundamental idea was that there are sites of outstanding universal value that are important to all people worldwide. The convention calls for collective efforts to preserve our World Heritage for future generations. The concept of World Heritage aims not only to protect the Earth’s unique cultural and natural treasures but also to promote mutual respect and solidarity among people, cultures, and states.

The United States was the first country to sign the convention in 1973, and it came into force in 1975. Sweden signed it in 1984. The convention has been signed by 194 states (as of 2020).

Learn more about UNESCO, the World Heritage Convention, and the World Heritage List:

Link to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre

What happens when a site becomes a World Heritage site?

To include a site on the World Heritage List, the state party (in our case, Sweden) needs to demonstrate that it has the means and resources to protect and manage the site. In addition to having legislation that enables protection and authorities that ensure compliance with the legislation, the state party is encouraged to integrate World Heritage sites into spatial planning, ensuring that the sites have a living function in society (such as visitor attractions), conducting scientific research related to the site, and providing services, among other things. All of this needs to be in place before a site can become a World Heritage site.

A World Heritage site in Sweden does not have stronger protection than it would have had if it were not a World Heritage site. The rock carvings in Tanum, for example, are protected by the same cultural environment laws before and after the area was inscribed on the World Heritage List. Currently, there is no specific state funding for the protection and management of Sweden’s World Heritage sites.

According to the World Heritage Convention, there are no requirements for landowners or property owners to make World Heritage sites accessible to visitors. However, the convention states that the state party should enhance public appreciation for World Heritage sites and increase protection through education and informational efforts, which are facilitated if the sites are accessible. It is therefore in the interest of the state parties to work towards making the sites accessible. In the case of Tanum, this is achieved through usage agreements between the County Administrative Board and landowners at the sites.

Other World Heritage sites in Sweden

Sweden has 15 World Heritage sites. Drottningholm Palace and its surroundings were the first site to be inscribed on the list in 1991, and the most recent addition is the Hälsingland Farmhouses (2012). Sweden currently has a restrictive approach to nominating new World Heritage sites. The distribution of World Heritage sites is globally uneven, and the World Heritage Committee encourages countries that are already well-represented to refrain from new nominations.

Read more about World Heritage in Sweden on the UNESCO World Heritage Centre website.

The Skogskyrkogården cemetery World Heritage site in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: Hans Lundenmark, Vitlycke museum.