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.
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.
Ryan Balis is a research Associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.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.