Luisa Blanchfield Specialist in International Relations
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) identifies and helps protect international sites of such exceptional ecological, scientific, or cultural importance that their preservation is considered a global responsibility. Under the Convention, which entered into force in 1975, participating countries nominate sites to be included on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger (Danger List). Countries that are party to the Convention agree to protect listed sites within their borders and refrain from actions that might harm such sites in other countries. Currently, the World Heritage List is composed of 936 natural and cultural sites in 153 countries, and the Danger List includes 35 sites from 28 countries. One hundred and eighty-seven countries, including the United States, are party to the Convention.
The Obama Administration has requested and provided voluntary contributions to the World Heritage Fund and generally supports U.S. participation in the Convention. The Department of the Interior National Park Service administers the U.S. World Heritage program, processing U.S. nominations and handling other daily program operations. It administers sites with funds appropriated by Congress, except for several sites that are owned by states, private foundations, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or Native American tribes. Twenty-one sites in the United States are currently included on the World Heritage List, including the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park. In July 2010, Papahānaumokuākea in Hawaii became the latest U.S. site to be added to the list. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in June 2009 that the Obama Administration was taking steps to include Everglades National Park on the Danger List. The site was inscribed in July 2010. (The George W. Bush Administration had removed the site from the Danger List in 2007, maintaining that the United States had made considerable progress in conserving the park.)
Members of Congress have generally supported the World Heritage Convention. The Senate unanimously provided advice and consent to ratification of the Convention in 1973, and some Members have supported the inclusion of sites on the World Heritage List or Danger List. In the mid-1990s, some Members expressed concern that designating U.S. lands and monuments as World Heritage sites would infringe on national sovereignty. Ultimately, however, U.S. participation in the Convention does not give UNESCO or the United Nations authority over U.S. World Heritage sites or related land-management decisions. In addition, some Members have expressed concern with what they view as the limited role of Congress in nominating U.S. World Heritage Sites. Under current law, Congress is involved in the nomination of U.S. sites only to the extent that the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks is required to notify the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources regarding which sites he or she plans to nominate for inclusion on the World Heritage List.
This report provides background information on the World Heritage Convention, outlines U.S. participation and funding, and highlights criteria for adding and removing sites from the World Heritage Lists. It discusses possible issues for the 112th Congress, including the Convention’s possible impact on U.S. sovereignty, the role of the legislative branch in designating sites, and the potential implications for a site’s inclusion on the Lists.
Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
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