Speech – Prof. Jacek Purchla – Opening Ceremony of the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee

Address by H.E. Professor Jacek PURCHLA,
Chairperson of the World Heritage Committee
41st session of the World Heritage Committee – Opening ceremony
Krakow, Poland, 2 July 2017


Mr President,
Prime Minister,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!

It is an honour for me to be able to be with you here on Wawel Hill – a site of such importance for Polish culture and identity. At the same time, for nearly two hundred years now, Wawel has also been a hothouse of Polish conservation thought, and a symbol of respect for heritage. It is no coincidence that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) was founded right here, at the Royal Castle at Wawel – exactly fifty-two years ago.

I would like to thank you for the confidence you have shown in me in entrusting me with the role of chairperson of the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee. Issues of heritage and monument conservation, as well as heritage education, have occupied a central place throughout my academic and professional career, and so the honourable duty that I am performing today for the international community gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction.

Working at a university offers a broad view of various aspects of heritage. It also offers the privilege of teaching young people that heritage is above all a value, not merely a resource. I hold the profound belief that education can be a remedy for ignorance – ignorance that is the enemy of intercultural dialogue.

For that very reason, for over 25 years I have been furthering the work of the International Cultural Centre, whose seat is not far from here, in the heart of Krakow, on its Main Market Square. At our Centre we hold the conviction that heritage protection serves to reinforce identity, and at the same time to preserve cultural diversity. Education for heritage today is not a niche subject, but a NECESSITY.

Youth is one of UNESCO’s priorities. Since 1995 every session of the World Heritage Committee has been preceded by the Young Professionals World Heritage Forum. I am pleased that this year’s Forum has been organised jointly by the ICC and the Polish UNESCO Committee. Its theme – Memory: Heritage Lost and Recovered – is more relevant today than ever before. Tomorrow, young experts from over 30 countries will deliver their message about these very issues to the Committee.

Cultural and natural heritage faces unprecedented threats almost every day, often due to the increasing intolerance dividing societies and nations. In recent years we have seen deliberate destruction of heritage in several parts of the world. Palmyra has become the symbol of this devastation.

As members of the World Heritage Committee we have taken decisive action to condemn these acts of destruction that threaten the peace and fragile equilibrium of our world. We have pledged to strengthen international protection of cultural and natural heritage. Above all, we have released a declaration confirming our support for the campaign #Unite4Heritage, launched in 2015 on the initiative of our Director General. These are significant actions, but we cannot stop here.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!

Since its ratification of the Convention over 40 years ago, Poland has consistently been implementing its terms. Its adoption of the Convention at such an early stage is a reflection of the great importance that Poles attach to heritage and its protection. Our scientific and conservation potential has always manifested itself in the great engagement of Polish experts in archaeological and conservation missions in various parts of the world. Since the very beginning, Poland has played an active part in the work of the World Heritage Committee, above all in terms of reflection on the future of the Convention, and recently also in the area of the methods of action adopted by its various bodies.


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

During the 45 years that the Convention has been functioning, the role of the civil society and non-governmental organisations has increased hugely. Heritage is people – heritage is us: its creators, interpreters, and users. The links between society and heritage have been identified as central to the debate on human inheritance and its preservation. To emphasise the special role of the civil society in the field of heritage I took personal action and initiated a meeting entitled For a Structured Dialogue with Civil Society which will bring together representatives of the third sector and members of the World Heritage Committee. I am grateful to Europa Nostra for their partnership in building this platform for dialogue. Another event to be organised as part of the 41st session is the Site Managers World Heritage Forum, which will aim to offer an overview of the process for monitoring the state of conservation of World Heritage properties.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

‘World Heritage’ designation is less and less considered a “beauty label” but is becoming more and more meaningful in terms of conservation management and protection. I am aware of the fact that today we at UNESCO should not just be perceived as the so called authorised heritage discourse. With more than 1000 World Heritage properties inscribed on the List, we can speak of real achievement in terms of success of the World Heritage Convention, one of the few almost universally ratified normative instruments. But this success brings new challenges that have to be addressed, challenges which are endangering the implementation of the Convention as well as its credibility. Some action has already been taken. Dialogue, cooperation and consultation between the States Parties, the Advisory Bodies and the Secretariat have been reinforced.

However, credibility depends also on better representation, which will be achieved with the end of persistent geographical imbalances and with the real diversity of the heritage represented. And, first and foremost, credibility is based on our own responsibility as members of this Committee. One of the greatest challenges facing us is involvement in politics, and national interests that are undermining our actions. It is our task to overcome these threats.


Dear Colleagues,

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the tremendous work of the UNESCO Secretariat, which under Dr Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, safeguards the day-to-day operation of the Centre and has worked hard to prepare this session of the Committee.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The 41st session has a very full agenda. I must say that as chairman I am counting on you! I can only stress the importance of the task before us and assure you that I am available to help you, in my capacity as Chairperson, to fulfil our mission in respect of the highest standards of integrity and transparency of working methods.

There is a real challenge ahead of us: over 200 decisions to be made in just ten days! Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we do start the work strictly disciplined by time.

I thank you all for your attention.

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