As Americans celebrate the 224th anniversary of our nation's independence and pause to remember the sacrifices made by our ancestors so that we may enjoy freedom today, perhaps no site evokes more poignant memories than Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Independence Hall is really where our nation was born. It is there that a young Thomas Jefferson was given the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence and where it was signed. It is there that George Washington was given command of the Continental Army - a move that made possible the American victory over the British. And it is there that the United States Constitution, the world's oldest and most successful federal constitution, was drafted and signed.
So why is it then that this hallowed symbol of American liberty is managed according to the will of the United Nations and not according to American laws? The reason: Independence Hall is an official United Nations World Heritage Site.
A U.N. World Heritage Site is an internationally-protected landmark of historical, cultural or natural significance that the U.S. government pledges the world body it will protect. When the U.S. signed the 1972 World Heritage Treaty, which established U.N. World Heritage Sites, the U.S. legally obligated itself to maintain our national treasures in accordance with standards set by the U.N., not the U.S.1
The U.S. has also dedicated millions of acres of American land to U.N. Biosphere Reserves. Similar to World Heritage Sites, a Biosphere Reserve is an area set aside for conservation and scientific study which the U.S. promises to manage according to U.N. standards.
Independence Hall, designated a World Heritage Site more than 20 years ago, is not the only major American landmark governed under the auspices of the U.N. Other World Heritage Sites include the Statue of Liberty, Jefferson's Monticello, the Grand Canyon and several major national parks. But that is not all. At least 70 other sites have been identified for nomination as World Heritage Sites, including the Washington Monument, the Brooklyn Bridge and California's Sequoia National Park.2
Defenders of the World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve programs argue that U.N. designations are symbolic and do not, in practice, infringe on the U.S. government's ability to manage the sites in accordance with domestic laws. It is true that - for the moment - the U.N. does not involve itself in the day-to-day management of World Heritage Sites. But there is nothing symbolic in the fact that the U.S., by signing the treaty, has legally bound itself to adhere to U.N. standards. This establishes an ominous precedent that could very well have major repercussions in the future if more intrusive U.N. treaties are negotiated.
Of special concern is that there is a serious lack of domestic oversight of the World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve programs because the Executive Branch can nominate any site it chooses without asking for congressional permission or even consulting with Congress. Likewise, political advocacy groups can directly petition the U.N. to list an area as a World Heritage Site or Biosphere Reserve without informing the localities that would be affected by the designation.
Not surprisingly, such semi-secretive maneuverings have caused major public backlash when exposed. For example, in 1995, an environmental advocacy group called the Catskill Center petitioned the U.N. to have New York's Catskill region designated a Biosphere Reserve. Although the proposal would have affected at least seven counties in the state, none of the officials in those counties were informed. It was only through the vigilant efforts of local citizens - already unhappy with state and federal land-use policies threatening property rights - that the Biosphere Reserve proposal was publicized. These concerned citizens contacted a state senator who was finally able to get some information as to what the U.N., located just down the Hudson River, was up to in their neighborhood. Wanting no part of the U.N. scheme, Catskill residents successfully lobbied to have their area removed from consideration. U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato and Congressman Gerald Solomon sent a letter to the U.S. State Department requesting that the Catskill region be removed from consideration as a Biosphere Reserve. The U.N. heeded the request and the site was not listed.3
Americans may have thought that the Revolution of 1776 settled
once and for all our sovereignty as a nation. But the U.N. World
Heritage and Biosphere Reserve programs show that this is not
the case. If you have any doubt, just go to Independence Hall
and read the plaque on its wall: "World Heritage Site."
1 United States House Committee on Resources,
"World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves Fact Sheet."
2 Property Rights Foundation of America, "Existing and Tentative U.N. World Heritage Sites in the United States," November-December, 1998.
3 David Rothbard and Craig Rucker, "U.N. Biospheres and World Heritage Sites," CFACT Briefing Paper #104, October, 1997.
John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for
Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments
may be sent to JCarlisle@nationalcenter.org.