The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the Commonwealth Government of Australia have taken steps to ensure that Indigenous cultural heritage is better recognized and protected.
ICOMOS is UNESCO’s international advisory body on World Heritage matters and works to ensure that the significance and value of indigenous tangible and intangible heritage, including cultural landscapes and biodiversity, is integrated into ICOMOS practices and activities.
The Commonwealth Government of Australia is also committed to changing “the way we look at heritage” to include “indigenous perspectives that truly preserve and protect Australia’s history”.
This includes a $5.5 million grant program to reassess the cultural values of Australia’s existing World Heritage properties.
How are potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites identified?
To be placed on the World Heritage List, a site must first be nominated by the country in which it is located. In Australia, sites must first be placed on the National Heritage List.
Nominated sites are evaluated by experts selected by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). On the basis of the expert reports, ICOMOS makes a formal recommendation on the nominated site.
The World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 rotating countries, then makes the final decision to place the site on the List.
The World Heritage Committee evaluates potential sites against ten criteria covering both natural and cultural aspects.
Protecting cultural sites on the World Heritage List
The World Heritage Convention is an international treaty that protects cultural and natural heritage around the world. It requires States Parties to sanction any violation of its provisions.
States Parties are obliged to prosecute and punish individuals who violate the Convention within their ordinary criminal jurisdiction. In Australia, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Commonwealth of Australia) (EPBC Act), it is an offence to take action that has, or would have, a significant impact on the World Heritage values of a declared World Heritage Site.
State and Territory legislation, including the Heritage Act 1977 (NSW), the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 (QLD) and the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (VIC), also protects the cultural heritage values of sites, including World Heritage Sites, and prohibits actions that may affect cultural heritage.
Impacts on Indigenous cultural heritage
The Commonwealth Government’s proclamation and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) resolution pave the way for further listings of sites based solely on Indigenous cultural values.
This is a significant step forward in the recognition and protection of Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage. It also reflects the growing international recognition of the importance of Indigenous cultural heritage in World Heritage.