Keep the Statue of Liberty Free: An Argument for Congressional Oversight of U.N. Land Designations in the U.S.

This Independence Day more than most, our Statue of Liberty has special meaning.

With its flame of freedom overlooking the site of the World Trade Center complex, the Statue of Liberty eloquently symbolizes the characteristics for which Americans are most known: our love of freedom; our commitment to self-government, our resistance to foreign threats and oppression.

Too bad the Statue of Liberty itself is under foreign domination.

That’s because the Statue of Liberty, like 17 other sites in the United States, has been designated as a U.N. World Heritage Site under the auspices of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO). A U.N. World Heritage Site is a cultural or natural landmark that receives international protection under the terms of the 1972 World Heritage Treaty.1

The U.S. also has allowed vast amounts of land to become U.N.-designated Biosphere Reserves. A Biosphere Reserve is an area that is set aside specifically for conservation and scientific study, which, like a World Heritage Site, the United States promises to manage in accordance with U.N. standards.

Currently, the United States has 18 World Heritage Sites2 and 47 Biosphere Reserves. World Heritage Sites include Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon National Park, Everglades National Park, Independence Hall, Redwood National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, Olympic National Park, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, La Fortaleza and the San Juan Historic Site, the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite National Park, Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Pueblo de Taos and the Carlsbad Caverns.3 The U.S. is required to regularly report to the U.N. on the status of its World Heritage Sites, specifically its “preservation and protection techniques and its efforts to encourage public awareness about cultural and national heritage.”4

What is especially noteworthy, and to many, disturbing, about these designations are that they can be made by the executive branch unilaterally without congressional approval. The President doesn’t need to consult anyone before placing U.S. territory under the thumb of the U.N. He does so after receiving recommendations from his Secretary of the Interior, who in turn receives advice from a panel of government officials that for the first decades of U.S. participation in this U.N. Treaty has contained no elected officials.5

Congress, in other words, has no input over what U.S. properties are placed in the international domain. Nor do the private owners of these properties, should any be privately owned, or the owners of private lands or businesses near these areas, which also are likely to be affected.

Despite years of historical evidence that wealthy democratic nations accountable to voters and private owners do more to protect precious natural and cultural resources than do any hidebound, non-representative and frequently cash-crunched bureaucracies, the World Heritage Treaty and Biosphere Reserves programs place the U.N. square in the middle of the preservation process.

As former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick has put it, “In U.N. organizations, there is no accountability, UN bureaucrats are far removed from the American voters… Some come from countries that do not allow the ownership of private property… What recourse does an American voter have when U.N. bureaucrats from Cuba or Iraq or Libya (all of which are parties to [the World Heritage] Treaty) have made a decision that unjustly damages his or her or property rights that lie near a national park? When the World Heritage committee’s meddling has needlessly encumbered a private United States citizen’s land and caused his or her property values to fail, that citizen’s appeals to these committee (if that is even possible) will fall on deaf ears.”6

Worse, sometimes our executive branch sides with the U.N. During the Clinton Administration, our government persuaded the U.N. to list Yellowstone National Park as a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”7 This gave the Administration an excuse to force a private mining company to abandon a development project near Yellowstone – without Congressional authorization and although, as pointed out by a Canadian Observer to the U.N., the project was a private one.

To this day, Yellowstone Park remains on UNESCO’s official list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, which means that our government’s management of Yellowstone is receiving heightened international scrutiny. One of the adverse circumstances suffered by Yellowstone, the U.N. says, is “year-round visitor pressures.”8

In other words, visitors to Yellowstone – mostly Americans – are visiting it too much, and the U.N. is concerned. But protection of Yellowstone, which nearly all Americans strongly favor, is rightly the province of the U.S. government, not the United Nations.

Some in government agree. Twice in recent years the House of Representatives has approved legislation mandating congressional approval before the executive branch approves any new World Heritage or Biosphere Reserves designations on U.S. soil. This moderate, compromise approach, however, has yet to be accorded even a vote in the U.S. Senate.

“World Heritage is like freedom,” said Bernd von Droste, founding director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, which oversees the World Heritage Sites program, “you do not realize its true value until you are deprived of it.”9

The same is true for liberty. As Ambassador Kirkpatrick pointed out: “In this democracy, the citizens grant powers to our elected leaders through our votes from the local, and state levels up to the Congress and the Presidency. We give them the power to declare our lands national parks and the right to enact the laws that restrict our use of our properties. We give our duly elected leaders the authority to select the judges who will interpret those laws. Our elected leaders, in turn, respond to our wishes because, just as we have granted them power, so may we take it from them in the next election. Representation and accountability are the foundation of the freedoms we cherish.”10

 Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

Footnotes:1 Each country ratifying the treaty, as the U.S. has done, pledges to conserve the sites situated on its territory and to acknowledge that its protection has become a responsibility shared by the international community as a whole. To read the complete text of the treaty, go to
2 For a complete list of World Heritage Sites, go to
3 UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserves Directory, downloaded June 28, 2002 from
4 World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves Fact Sheet, Committee on Resources, United States House of Representatives, Washington, DC.
5 Letter from The Honorable Jeane Kirkpatrick to The Honorable Bruce F. Vento, May 5, 1999, downloaded June 16, 2002 from
6 Ibid.
7 United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organization, Convention Concerning The Protection Of The World Cultural And Natural Heritage, Bureau Of The World Heritage Committee, Nineteenth Session, UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 3-8 July 1995, as downloaded from on June 28, 2002. See also Kathleen Benedetto of the National Wilderness Institute, Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, May 26, 1999.
8 United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organization Convention Concerning The Protection Of The World Cultural And Natural Heritage, World Heritage Committee, Nineteenth session, Berlin, Germany, 4-9 December 1995, as downloaded from on June 28, 2002.
9 “UNESCO Launches New Quarterly World Heritage Review,” UNESCOPRESS, April 1996, downloaded June 28, 2002 from
10 Kirkpatrick.

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