Protecting cultural and natural heritage of universal value

From the medieval Old Town of Berne to the futuristic city of Brasilia, from the tiny convent of Müstair to the imposing cathedral of Chartres, from the fertile terraced vineyards of Lavaux to the vast desert of Ténéré – all have one thing in common: they are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO designates outstanding cultural achievements and unique natural phenomena that are of exceptional universal value and entrusts humanity with their protection and preservation. There are currently 890 such sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Aletsch glacier © FDFA, Presence Switzerland

UNESCO and its successful World Heritage Convention

UNESCO is the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation of the United Nations (UN). The UNESCO campaign in 1960 to save the Temples of Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the Nile during the construction of the Aswan Dam was the first step towards the “Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage”. At the heart of this Convention is the revolutionary idea that exceptional cultural achievements and unique natural phenomena are not the sole property of the state on whose territory they are found, but belong to all of humanity. As such, the entire citizenry of the world must assume responsibility for their protection and preservation. This notion of universal heritage and its preservation was enshrined in the World Heritage Convention, which UNESCO would adopt in 1972. So far, 185 states have signed the Convention. 

World Cultural and Natural Heritage List

Ayers Rock, Grand Canyon, Palace of Versailles, Machu Picchu… these are only a few of the 936 sites that appear on the awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage List. The 725 cultural sites include buildings of particular architectural merit, entire towns, and even industrial facilities. The 183 natural sites include, among others, important ecosystems, vestiges of evolutionary history, and nature reserves. 28 of the 936 sites are mixed, i.e. they come under both categories. All signatory states to the Convention may put forward cultural and natural treasures from their country for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

It is a privilege to carry the UNESCO World Heritage symbol and confers great prestige on the sites that hold it. However, it is not granted eternally – UNESCO diligently checks that the necessary steps are continually being taken to preserve the outstanding universal value (integrity and authenticity) of the sites on its World Heritage List. World Heritage Sites which are at threat from decay, major construction projects or wars are placed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”, and sometimes even withdrawn from the World Heritage List. The last time this happened was in 2009: the site in question was the protected cultural landscape of the Elbe Valley in Dresden. It was struck off the list because of the construction of a new motorway bridge nearby. 

World Heritage Sites in Switzerland

Switzerland has been a signatory state to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention since it came into force in 1975. Eight years later, the first three Swiss sites were accepted on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It would be almost 20 years before it applied again. Today, the tiny country of Switzerland has 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites both natural and cultural. 


World Heritage Sites Overview

1983 Old City of Bern, Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair, Convent of St Gall
2000 Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona
2001 Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch
2003 Monte San Giorgio
2007 Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces
2008 Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes, Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona
2009 La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, watchmaking town planning
2011 Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps
2016 Urban and architectural work of Le Corbusier (jointly with Argentina, Belgium, Germany, France and Japan)

A shared duty

The Federal Office of Culture (FOC) and the Federal Office of the Environment (FOEN) are in charge of the protection and conservation of cultural and natural heritage. They advise and provide scientific support to the World Heritage Sites and to candidates. The Swiss Commission for UNESCO coordinates all stakeholders for the joint promotion of the Sites as a whole and raises public awareness of the principles and values of World Heritage. In addition the UNESCO Coordination Unit of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) deals with institutional relations at the international level.

On 26 October 2009, Switzerland was elected by a clear majority to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for the next four years. The World Heritage Committee is an important executive body of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. It establishes strategies for the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage, and is also responsible for deciding on the inclusion of sites on the World Heritage List, and, where necessary, on their exclusion.

Switzerland is represented on the World Heritage Committee by the Ambassador of the Permanent Delegation of Switzerland to UNESCO, in Paris, and by representatives of the Federal Office for the Environment FOEN (DETEC), the Federal Office of Culture FOC (FDHA) and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). 

Living cultural heritage

Inclusion on the World Heritage List should not transform the site into an off-limits open-air museum. The explicit goal of UNESCO is to guarantee regional development which is not only sustainable but is also consistent with World Heritage principles and values. What this implies in practice is striking a balance between innovation and preservation, and using our natural resources without destroying them. It is for this reason that the professional management of World Heritage Sites is vital.

A good case in point is the “Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch”. In 2010 a special centre, the "World Nature Lab", will open its doors. Its aim is to provide a platform for discussions on climate, the protection of nature, regional development and tourism. At the same time, it will seek to raise public awareness of these issues. However, such challenges are not unique to this vulnerable glacier region. Other World Heritage Sites in Switzerland are also confronted with similar problems. Take the Old Town of Berne which must reconcile the preservation of its historic architecture with the needs of a modern city. Likewise the Rhaetian Railway strives to preserve its authenticity while ensuring that it remains economically viable. 

Modern communication

The idea of protecting world heritage of universal value for generations to come will only succeed if this imperative becomes ingrained in the public consciousness. This is why it is vital to make the public aware, particularly young people, of their existence and importance. A variety of initiatives and innovative projects have been developed to get this message across (see the links provided at the end of each presentation).