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July 2003

This Land is My Land: How United Nations Claims of World Heritage May Swipe America's Past


by Ryan Balis


It is curious that we Americans have placed some of our most valued landmarks - such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and Yellowstone National Park - under United Nations jurisdiction.

National symbols have an unmistakable allure. They have sentimental, historical and religious value and represent a common heritage.

We fly the flag on Independence Day in part because it reminds us of the liberty, equality, strength and justice that define America at its best.

Since 1972, the United Nations - with the approval of various U.S. presidents - has placed 20 cultural and natural landmarks in the United States (and 730 worldwide) on its list of "World Heritage Areas" sites to be protected and monitored by the U.N. Other American treasures so designated include Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon.

The United Nations World Heritage program is run in UNESCO's offices in Paris, France. It designates natural or cultural sites that are considered to be of "outstanding universal value."2 Those sites receive international protection under the terms of the 1972 World Heritage Treaty,3 which the United States ratified.

The concept of common world heritage stems from post-World War II globalization efforts.4

To critics, it is bitterly ironic that an international body has significant influence over the places that symbolize our nation's independence and national beauty. More substantively, the program poses a threat to national sovereignty.

Preserving important places for future generations is important, but giving the United Nations control or even influence over our most previous treasurers invites trouble.

The idea that foreigners can claim authority over American buildings and monuments that symbolize the fight for an establishment of our American system of government is alarming. A World Heritage Area designation can be used by someone operating in bad faith to interfere with our self-government - particularly on the local level.

Another nation, for instance, could conceivably use World Heritage Areas to ask the United Nations to pressure for increased regulation of auto access to Manhattan because pollution originating there affects the Statue of Liberty. The chance of such a scenario - or something similar - occurring should not be rejected because the United States, in allowing the Statue of Liberty to be listed as a World Heritage Area, has essentially ceded a degree of authority over the property to the United Nations.

In 1995, the Clinton Administration appeased a German official along with a coalition of radical environmentalists over concerns that work on a western mine that had already been determined to be environmentally safe supposedly threatened Yellowstone National Park. The United Nations was persuaded to list Yellowstone as a "World Heritage Site in Danger." The designation gave the Clinton Administration the authority to force the private mining company off the land. The mine was closed.5 It didn't matter what local residents thought.

Although the United Nations claims to preserve irreplaceable world treasures, its record is not altogether convincing.

In 2001, over United Nations objections, the Taliban destroyed two of Afghanistan's monumental Buddhas, dating back at least 1,500 years.6 United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called on the Taliban to spare the Buddhas, but he didn't schedule a meeting on the matter until two weeks after the relics were destroyed.7

The House of Representatives passed the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act in 1999, which would require congressional approval before any more U.S. properties are designated as U.N. World Heritage Areas.8 The Senate did not even vote on the bill.

Americans need - at minimum - a voice in the process.

Managing "heritage" on a global scale risks spoiling a country's traditional distinctiveness. If America is to preserve the liberty that we once again celebrate this Independence Day, our nation must have sole ownership and control of our land.

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Ryan Balis is a research Associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to info@nationalcenter.org.



1 "The World Heritage List," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Centre, Paris, France, available at http://whc.unesco.org/heritage.htm as of June 18, 2003.

2 "Defining our Heritage," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Centre, Paris, France, available at http://whc.unesco.org/nwhc/pages/doc/dc_f1.htm as of June 18, 2003 and "Pathways to Preservation," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Centre, Paris, France, available at http://whc.unesco.org/nwhc/pages/doc/main.htm as of June 18, 2003.

3 "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and National Heritage," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Centre, Paris, France, available at http://whc.unesco.org/world_he.htm as of June 18, 2003.

4 Brian Graham, A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2000); John E. Tunbridge, "The Question of Heritage in European Cultural Conflict," Modern Europe: Place, Culture and Identity, Brian Graham, ed. (London, England: Arnold, 1998), pp. 237-60.

5 "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Centre, Paris, France, available at http://whc.unesco.org/archive/repbu95a.htm#yellowstone as of June 18, 2003.
6 "The Afghan Iconoclasts," The Economist, March 8, 2001, available at http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=530232 as of June 18, 2003.

7 "U.N. Chief to Take up Afghan Statues with Taliban," CNN.com, March 11, 2001, available at http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/central/03/10/afghan.taleban/index.html as of June 18, 2003.

8 Testimony of Kathy Benedetto of the National Wilderness Institute before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Washington, D.C., May 26, 1999.


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