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UNESCO has adopted a mission to preserve those cultural and natural sites of the world that are of outstanding universal value. With the International Convention of 23rd November 1972 concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO Convention 72; RS 0.451.41), the community of the United Nations gave itself its most important instrument in this domain. Switzerland was one of the first states to sign it in 1975.
Each State Party to the Convention undertakes to conserve and maintain the objects of cultural and natural heritage within its territory. The Convention requires the establishment of a system of international collaboration that supports the States in their efforts by constituting an international fund for this purpose. To define this cultural and natural heritage, a list of the sites – the World Heritage List – has been drawn up. The World Heritage sites are divided into three categories: cultural property, natural property, and mixed property. The World Heritage List currently lists 1031 sites. The World Heritage Committee is the deciding authority in the field of World Heritage: it comprises representatives from 21 of the 191 States that have ratified the Convention. They are elected for 6 years, but most voluntarily reduce their term to 4 years. The ordinary sessions of this committee take place once a year, usually in June.
Within the signatory States, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Heritage is not applied directly (it is non self-executing). Rather, the protection of cultural and natural heritage is governed by the individual legislative systems of each of these states. In Switzerland, the main legal bases that make it possible to satisfy the requirements of the Convention are the Federal Law of 1st July 1966 on the Protection of Nature and the Landscape (LPN; RS 451) and provisions at canton and commune level relating to nature and heritage protection. In addition, there are various laws and provisions – particularly in the field of town and country planning – to ensure the protection and conservation of the World Heritage sites in Switzerland.
Once inscribed, World Heritage sites whose integrity is at risk can be placed by the World Heritage committee on a 'red list', the World Heritage in Danger List. This list currently includes 48 sites. As a last resort, UNESCO has the option to strike a property off of the World Heritage list.
The World Heritage Fund makes it possible to support restoration projects for World Heritage sites, and is fed by the contributions from the signatory States and by donations. Each State pays into the fund a percentage of the total of its annual contributions to UNESCO (for Switzerland, this currently represents barely US$ 40,000). In this way, the fund receives in total the relatively modest sum of US$ 4 million per year. Many countries also participate in various projects – in particular, through trust funds – or support UNESCO by financing personnel. Switzerland participates in projects with voluntary financial contributions.
World Heritage is enjoying resounding success. The prestige that often accompanies the inscription of a site as World Heritage, and the importance this has for the tourist industry, means that the list is constantly growing. Some years ago, UNESCO had already noticed a risk of thematic and geographical imbalance. To curb this tendency, it has developed a strategy intended to ensure the World Heritage list is representative and retains its credibility. Within this context, the notion of 'historic monument' has been broadened and inclusion has been encouraged of categories up till now not represented on the World Heritage list, like cultural landscapes and industrial heritage. Latterly, support for transboundary properties or ones consisting of different component parts related to each other for thematic reasons (called serial properties) has also been increased. But to avoid unchecked growth, UNESCO has limited the maximum number of inscriptions of new objects onto the World Heritage list to a maximum of 45 per year, with the order of priority set either according to the date of reception of the nomination application, or according to the category of the object. Moreover, no country may now submit more than two nominations per year. Serial transnational and in some cases also transboundary nominations are regarded as being made by only one State – generally the one co-ordinating the project as a whole.
In Switzerland, two authorities of the Confederation are responsible for World Heritage at national level: the Federal Office of Culture, which looks after historic monuments, archaeology, and the protection of built landscapes, and co-ordinates all issues affecting World Heritage; and the Federal Office for the Environment, as specialists in the protection of nature and the landscape, for everything to do with natural sites. In addition, the Swiss national UNESCO commission advises the Confederation in its relations with UNESCO. The Swiss permanent delegation to UNESCO in Paris takes care of diplomatic relations with the various organs of UNESCO.
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