An aerial view of the rocks of Stonehenge. Visitors walking round are tiny in comparison.
Stonehenge World Heritage site. © Historic England
Stonehenge World Heritage site. © Historic England

The World Heritage Convention

The UNESCO 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) is an international treaty that was created to identify and protect the world’s most important cultural and natural sites.

By ratifying the Convention individual countries (States Parties) join an international community that have committed to protecting and preserving the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

The World Heritage List is the list of properties established by the Convention. These properties form part of the cultural and natural heritage defined in the Convention and are considered as having outstanding universal value. The List now includes over 1,150 cultural and natural sites, such as cities, monuments, technological sites, landscapes and geological sites.

There are currently (February 2023) 33 UK World Heritage Sites, 20 of which are located entirely or partially in England.

Outstanding Universal Value

Sites are inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are considered to have outstanding universal value (OUV) that makes their permanent protection of the highest importance to the international community. 

Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity

2021 Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, Paragraph 49

To be considered of OUV a site must:

  • Match one or more of a set of ten criteria listed in the Operational Guidelines
  • Meet conditions for authenticity (only applicable to cultural properties and cultural elements of mixed properties)
  • Meet conditions for integrity
  • Have an adequate protection and management system to ensure its safeguarding

The OUV of a site will differ from its significance. Significance is wide ranging and represents the sum of all the cultural and natural values of a heritage asset. OUV is instead defined for each site in reference to the specific criteria for inscription on the World Heritage List, and consequently will not necessarily encompass all of the values that a heritage asset possesses.

States Parties

The World Heritage Convention sets out the duties of States Parties in the identification, nomination, protection, conservation, presentation of transmission of the cultural and natural heritage found in their territory.

States Parties to the Convention agree to identify and nominate heritage sites within their territory for inscription on the World Heritage List. It is the responsibility of States Parties to protect and conserve the attributes of OUV of the properties and to provide reports on their conservation to the World Heritage Committee.

The Convention also sets out the duty of States Parties to cooperate with the international community for the protection of world heritage. States Parties agree to help in the identification, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated in other territories as requested.

All States Parties to the Convention meet in General Assembly once every two years during the ordinary session of the General Conference of UNESCO. They elect the World Heritage Committee, make policy decisions, and examine the statement of accounts of the World Heritage Fund.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) acts as the UK ‘State Party’ to the Convention and work closely with Historic England, who act as technical advisor for the implementation of the Convention at cultural sites across the UK. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) support DCMS at natural sites. Historic England liaise with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Historic Environment Scotland, Cadw and responsible bodies in Overseas Territories in advising DCMS on obligations in respect of World Heritage properties in their respective territories.

The World Heritage Committee

The World Heritage Committee is responsible for the implementation of the Convention. It consists of 21 State Parties to the World Heritage Convention.

The Committee makes the decisions regarding inscription to the World Heritage List and to the List of World Heritage in Danger. It allocates financial support from the World Heritage Fund and requests action from State Parties when properties are not being managed effectively.

The World Heritage Centre

The World Heritage Committee is supported by a Secretariat appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO. The World Heritage Centre was created in 1992 to carry out this role. The Secretariat assists and collaborates with the States Parties and Advisory Bodies, following the decisions and Strategic Objectives of the Committee and the resolutions of the General Assembly.

Advisory bodies

The World Heritage Committee has three advisory bodies:

  • ICCROM (International Centre for the Study and Restoration of Cultural Property),
  • ICOMOS (International Committee on Monuments and Sites),
  • IUCN(The International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Useful bodies and contacts in the UK

  • Historic England provide advice on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in relation to cultural sites across the UK. Historic England engages with UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre on new or revised policies, guidance, and reporting and monitoring processes. In England, Historic England provides advice to owners and decision-makers about proposed changes that relate to World Heritage.
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) provides expert advice to DCMS in recognising and managing natural World Heritage sites in the UK and globally.
  • UK National Commission for UNESCO (UKNC) is the official board coordinating UNESCO activities in the UK and a constitutional part of the UK’s membership of UNESCO. UKNC links communities, UK government and UNESCO’s governing bodies and field offices to inform our national contribution to UNESCO policy and programmes.
  • World Heritage UK (WH:UK) is a membership organisation focused on networking, advocacy and promotion for the UK’s 33 World Heritage Sites and Tentative List Sites.
  • World Monuments Fund for Britain (WMF Britain) is a local representative for WMF, assisting with project management and outreach. WMF is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to safeguarding the world’s diverse cultural heritage through partnerships with local communities, funders and governments.

UK World Heritage Queries