It is a simple truth that idealistic organisations founded by charismatic individuals, or established in response to extraordinary circumstances, decline the further that time carries them from their Big Bang of fervour and faith.
Such a decline is well underway, unfortunately, with the World Heritage Sites, probably the best-known part of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, founded 1945). The importance of preserving such sites was given international legal force with the adoption in 1972 of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which entered into force in 1975, three months after the twentieth ratification. The Convention was the first to link the idea of the cultural patrimony with nature, and it had two memorable case histories behind it, in both of which UNESCO had played a leading role. The first was the saving in 1959 of the ancient Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel, which otherwise would have disappeared beneath the waters of the Aswan Dam, and the second was Venice, which suffered a dramatic flood in 1966, when the water rose thigh deep in St Mark’s Square. This led to the launch by UNESCO of its International Safeguarding Campaign for the city, prominent then, but now almost insignificant in influence in the big issues facing the city.
An essential remit of the Convention at the beginning was to protect the world’s most outstanding sites, not merely award Michelin stars, as it were. To quote from the Preamble to the 1972 Convention: “In view of the magnitude and gravity of the new dangers threatening them, it is incumbent on the international community as a whole to participate in the protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value, by the granting of collective assistance which, although not taking the place of action by the State concerned, will serve as an efficient complement thereto.”
This collective assistance “shall be understood to mean the establishment of a system of international co-operation and assistance designed to support States Parties to the Convention in their efforts to conserve and identify that heritage.”
In the early days of the Convention, countries used to ask for their sites to be put on the endangered list because UNESCO had a budget with which to help them, but since the US froze its funding in 2011 and then definitively withdrew in 2017 (it has rejoined this year) and UNESCO’s running costs ballooned, the organisation has a mere $4million per annum to spend on conservation. This coincided with a politicisation of the organisation in the 1980s, made constitutional in 1991, when the General Conference abolished article V of UNESCO’s 1945 founding constitution, which had stated, “In selecting its representative on the Executive Board, the Member [State] of the Executive Board shall endeavour to appoint a person qualified in one or more of the fields of competence of UNESCO and with the necessary experience and capacity to fulfil the administrative and executive duties of the Board”… In fact, in its early decades, UNESCO was full of intellectuals and personalities such as the poet Pablo Neruda, the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the feminist writer Simone Weil and her lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
The 1991 reform was driven by the Japanese Ambassador to UNESCO, Anshiro Akimoto, who considered that replacing intellectuals by diplomats would increase the organisation’s ‘effectiveness’, but it actually had the consequence of replacing representatives who aimed to lobby for the protection of the universal value of any site in their national territory with diplomats who took their orders from central government and were told to defend their nation’s image and interests.
This transformation is what lies behind the repeated failure of UNESCO to put Venice, a World Heritage Site since 1987, on its endangered list. This was first threatened in 2014 and the city was told to show proof of marked improvement in the management of, among other things, tourism and its ecology by 2016, which it was unable to do. But at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Istanbul that year, Italy managed through its influence in the World Heritage Centre, to prevent Venice even being on the agenda to be discussed, let alone to be voted onto the endangered list by the Committee.
A very negative report by ICOMOS (International Council of Monuments and Sites), which together with ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) is responsible for visiting and reporting back to UNESCO on it World Heritage Sites, was hidden at the last moment among the more than 2000 pp of preparatory documents for the meeting, so that almost none of the representatives of Member-States had read it.
Had it not been, therefore, for the tenacious representative of Lebanon, the architect Jad Tabet, who remembered the early heroic days of UNESCO, and insisted, much to the annoyance of the Italian ambassador to UNESCO, on a public discussion, Venice would barely have been mentioned at all at the meeting. But the speeches were farcical, revealing the cosy alliances that Italy had formed with other Member States to avoid criticism, or a total ignorance of the issues. The representative of Azerbaijan, for example, said that Italy’s skill at restoring works of art was world famous, so there could be no doubt that it would be capable of looking after Venice.
Now the question of Venice is coming up again at the forthcoming meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh from 10 to 23 September and this time UNESCO has already announced publicly that it intends to recommend that it be put on the list of endangered sites. The reasons listed in the preparatory documents for the meeting are the old ones: a failure to manage tourist numbers; to define the protective buffer zone that all World Heritage Sites commit to having; to manage the moto ondoso, the wave action caused by too many motorised boats in the lagoon; to protect the ecology of the lagoon. But there is a new emphasis on the consequences of climate change: “The combined effects of human-induced and natural changes (due to sea level rise, extreme weather events and other climate change-induced phenomena) are causing deterioration and damage to build structures and urban areas, and threaten the integrity of the cultural, environmental and landscape attributes and values of the property.”
Above all, UNESCO says, there is no strategic thinking and coordinated management for the site. This has been the case since the Second World War and may actually represent the greatest threat to the city. Finally, it seems that the “State Party”, that is, Italy, cannot be bothered to communicate “in a sustained and substantive manner with the World Heritage Centre between the last Committee session in 2021 and the submission of its state of conservation report in 2022, as requested by the Committee, and that it did not engage in consultation to developing the corrective measures.”
Despite these criticisms, most of which have come up again and again in the past, it is nonetheless unlikely that Venice will be added to the endangered list because the Italian foreign ministry remains as adamant as ever that it would be shameful if this were to happen, and it can be sure that when it comes to the vote in the World Heritage Committee, its large majority this year of non-western members will side with Italy. This is because these have become hostile to UNESCO itself and to western States Parties due to the fact that 51 of the 54 World Heritage Sites on the endangered list are in their countries, particularly those of the Global South, and the belief is that this is due to an arrogant, neo-colonialist attitude on the part of the Western countries.
So, what have I done as a former chairman of Venice in Peril, the British charitable fund for the protection of Venice? I have focused on the greatest danger of all, the rise in the water level. After all, if this is at one metre above its current datum by 2100, there is no point in worrying about the tourist problem as the buildings will be falling down. The mobile barriers exist to hold back temporary flooding events but they cannot save the city from the inexorably rising water level except by being almost permanently closed, which would turn the lagoon into a stinking swamp, so a new solution has to be found. Go for the big issue, is my approach, the one that is global and therefore takes the personal sting out of the history of how Italy has looked after Venice.
I have published an article explaining how Venice will die in the Sole 24Ore, Italy’s influential financial paper, and have pointed out in a letter (as yet unanswered) to the Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, himself a writer and journalist, that working with, rather than against UNESCO this time would be a sign of maturity that might help release EU and international assistance and lift the discussion of the future of Venice out of the narrow and often toxic local politics that have done so much to damage the health of the city over the last 30 years or so. For it is a simple fact that the Serenissima is in in physical danger as never before in all its history. The Italian government should welcome Venice being put on the endangered list rather than perversely denying this reality.
UPDATE: Following discussions at the 2023 meeting in Riyadh, the World Heritage Committee, led by the representative for Japan, successfully opposed the addition of Venice to the endangered sites list on the grounds that Italy’s investment in the mobile flood barriers plus the announcement that it would be charging day trippers a €5 entrance fee as from 2024 showed that it was making a sufficient commitment to the city, and that it just needed to work more closely with the World Heritage Centre in future.
Flooding in St Mark’s Square, Venice, 2019, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acqua_alta_DSCF4850.jpg Antonio Fiol, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Cruise ship in Venice, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Non_aux_grands_navires_%C3%A0_Venise_%21_%2810152263736%29.jpg Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal (18 October 1697 – 19 April 1768), The Grand Canal, Venice, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Bacino_di_San_Marco_nel_giorno_dell%27Ascensione.jpg Canaletto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons