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World Heritage

Interview: Christian Hoffmann / kbm
June 25, 2015

Where will the next new World Heritage Sites be located? UNESCO World Heritage chairwoman Maria Böhmer tells DW she's hopeful Germany will secure site number 40 - but much more concerned about destruction in Syria.

Dr. Maria Böhmer, Minister of State at Germany's Federal Foreign Office and chairwoman of the World Heritage Committee, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

With destruction in Iraq and Syria regularly making headlines, protection will be high on the agenda when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee holds its 39th session in Bonn, Germany, from June 28-July 8. But the highlight of the event will be the decision of which of the 36 applicants will earn a UNESCO title - and which cultural and natural sites will be dropped from the World Heritage list.

DW spoke with Maria Böhmer, Minister of State at Germany's Federal Foreign Office and chairwoman of the World Heritage Committee, ahead of the conference.

DW: While you are preparing to name new World Heritage Sites, existing sites are under threat. The "Islamic State" has mined the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and reportedly destroyed the first tombs there. How can UNESCO counteract the current threat of war and terror?

Maria Böhmer: We are all very concerned about Palmyra. It's not the first World Heritage site threatened by the "IS" and we know that such threats must be taken very seriously. But I think it's very important for everyone who lives in this region, and also the whole world, to come together and speak with one voice.

The religious justification the "IS" has given for the destruction has not been accepted by any country. It's an act of terror and a war crime.

Palmyra, Copyright: Robert Harding World Imagery/C. Rennie
Böhmer says sites like Palmyra are being digitalized in case they need to be rebuilt in the futureImage: picture-alliance/Robert Harding World Imagery/C. Rennie

The idea behind World Heritage is to protect exceptional cultural treasures. Now Palmyra's title is also its doom. Is the "IS" targeting the site because UNESCO has deemed it worthy of protection?

We had similar experiences in Afghanistan, in Mali - again and again, unfortunately. We're talking here about a strategy of war that aims to destroy people's cultural memory. We have to do something about it. And that can't always be done with military force, but with the solidarity of all the nations in the world. We have a special obligation to protect our World Heritage.

What does UNESCO do to protect the sites?

In regions that are threatened by terrorism, we are strengthening our efforts to ensure that cultural assets are protected. One example is collaboration between the German Archaeology Institute and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation here in Berlin with experts in Iraq and Syria. We have digitalized images of the cultural treasures in Syria so that, should the sites actually be destroyed, we'll have a basis for reconstruction. This process has also been helpful when natural catastrophes have destroyed World Heritage sites.

So we are not helpless. We can do something - and we must do something.

Thirty-eight sites are vying for World Heritage status this year, including the Speicherstadt in Hamburg and the Naumburg Cathedral. Do German sites have an advantage since the conference is taking place in Germany?

We have to take a look at the rules - even the unwritten rules. That means, for example, for me as president, that the moment the German applications are discussed, I no longer function as president, but hand the direction of the session over to my deputy. But I can say that I am confident that we will soon have 40 World Heritage Sites in Germany.

Speicherstadt Hamburg, Copyright: dpa/Kay Nietfeld
Hamburg's Speicherstadt is the largest warehouse district in the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Kay Nietfeld

The application process for World Heritage sites is very cumbersome. Why do candidates go through the arduous process?

I think there's a lot of pride in being able to say that the heritage, the treasure in your city or region are of extraordinary, universal value - that's the definition of World Heritage - and that you belong to World Heritage List. That is the heritage of humanity.

It is no longer just the cultural or natural treasure of a region or country, whether it's Saxony-Anhalt or Germany, but receives worldwide attention.

The second point is that World Heritage Sites create identity. They bring people together far beyond their borders. And the third point, which we hear again and again, is that visiting a World Heritage Site is a great attraction. It can become a tourist magnet, which can have an economic impact. But I would leave this as the third point. The others are more important.

Are poorer countries disadvantaged when it comes to the application process?

The required effort has become enormous and that does mean that those with fewer financial resources and also less experience don't have the best cards. But it's a challenge for all of us with the necessary knowledge and financial possibilities to support these countries. And it does happen that partnerships form. Germany gets involved in this way and I think we serve as a good example, which we should emphasize in Bonn.