Heritage, human rights and Norwegian development cooperation: the our common dignity initiative and World Heritage

Peter Bille Larsen and Amund Sinding-Larsen


Can international funding of cultural heritage projects help to protect and promote human rights? Indeed, what is the potential impact of international cooperation work on heritage policy and practice in general, and more specifically to successfully address the often-thorny social implications associated with rights issues?

Based on direct involvement in an international project to explore the significance of rights-based approaches to World Heritage, this chapter reflects upon the nature, limits, and opportunities involved in promoting rights through internationally funded conservation projects. The project on which the chapter text is based was carried out between 2011 and 2016 by ICOMOS Norway in cooperation with the Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Convention - IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM - The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - hereafter listed as the Advisory Bodies (AB).

We here reflect on the specific nature of a project, funded by the Ministry of Climate and Environment, in a longer historical context of development aid from Norway. The history and context of Norwegian development cooperation, and support to ICOMOS Norway, played an instrumental role in shaping the Initiative, yet also relied on the particular convergence of other dynamics. Analyzing these conditions, in turn, allows us to better discuss whether and how internationally funded projects may promote human rights and transform heritage practice. We also engage with the broader literature on development aid and human rights, exploring both comparable trends and case-specific characteristics of the heritage field.

In the first section, a number of key lessons from the broader literature on technical cooperation and human rights are presented. In the second section, we briefly describe the history of Norwegian development cooperation in the fields of human rights and cultural heritage. In the third section, we describe the specific history of Norwegian activity to support international immovable cultural heritage. The fourth section discusses the Our Common Dignity Initiative; presenting how and under which conditions it emerged. In the fifth section we focus on lessons learned, with concluding remarks.

Heritage, human rights, and development cooperation

International cooperation in the field of cultural and natural heritage is known to take similar forms, yet beneath universalist language reveal diverse framings, different national priorities and localized approaches. This is equally true for how human rights have been conceived and dealt with in specific political domains, across diverse jurisdictions and contrasting cooperation frameworks (Larsen, 2017).

In the first decades of the post-World War II period, if development was the field of economists, human rights was that of lawyers and activists. World Heritage, in turn, equally emerged as a distinct field of expertise partially defined through international cooperation (Cameron and Rössler, 2013). Whereas human rights have been critical to the United Nations and UNESCO since the institutions were founded, setting human rights at the centre stage of wider development discourses has proved to be a challenging task (Uvin, 2010; Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi, 2004). For a long while, however, the fields of heritage and human rights also remained largely disconnected. Interestingly, it was only towards the end of the 20th century that forces linking development, rights and ultimately heritage started converging. The end of the Cold War was instrumental in allowing for a human rights-oriented development discourse to consolidate itself also building on the growing acceptance that development was about more than economic growth alone (Uvin, 2010).

The advent of sustainable development and rights as central to the heritage discourse is fairly recent compared to heritage as an international field of cooperation. Still, just as development-related human rights and debate preceded the mainstreaming of rights-based development (Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi, 2004), discussions linking culture, heritage, and rights had a longer and more complex history of debate before being adopted by the mainstream heritage discourse (Blake, 2011; Vrdoljak, 2013; Shaheed, 2015). Yet, in the specific domain of World Heritage it was also clear that a focus on human rights long remained absent from the generally accepted heritage discourse.

Despite multiple scholarly discussions on linkages between rights and heritage, and attempts to lobby for change in the World Heritage system (e.g. on indigenous issues), the Committee in particular, until recently appeared rather resistant towards incorporating human rights issues in terms

Our common dignity initiative and World Heritage 209 of both policy and operations (Larsen, 2017). The World Heritage sphere appeared to operate in a silo framed by its own normative prescriptions rather than wider frameworks (Larsen and Buckley, 2018). Whereas human rights language increasingly shapes and frames social struggles and much international dialogue (Cowan et al., 2001), the advent of a human rights space in the World Heritage field has therefore been slow, cautious and largely shaped by fire-fighting in response to specific cases of conflict and violations.

More explicit attention to rights in the World Heritage realm would ultimately emerge in a ‘re-birth’ of the understanding that heritage was about more than just its material manifestations, recognizing the importance of distinct linkages of people and places and their associated rights in the landscape. Two phenomena may be considered critical in leading to this change. On the one hand, a growing group of local communities and advocacy organizations increasingly challenged the impacts that World Heritage designation had in terms of displacement, annulling customary rights and disempowerment. On the other hand, the heritage discourse has increasingly been broadened to address both tangible and intangible dimensions. Concepts such as living heritage and changing policy imperatives may narrow the gap between heritage as an expert domain and heritage seen in its societal context (Thompson and Wijesuriya, 2018). In consequence, heritage experts and practitioners are becoming increasingly attentive and ready to address perspectives, needs, and claims emerging from civil society.

The main rationale for a focus on rights dimensions in heritage management and using a ‘human rights-based approach’ include (a) the ethical rationale, namely acknowledging that a human rights-based approach is ‘the right thing to do’, morally and (b) an instrumental rationale, i.e. recognizing that a human rights-based approach leads to better and more sustainable human development and heritage outcomes. Addressing rights in heritage work raises numerous vital questions, such as whose heritage should be protected; whose and which rights are affected; as well as the role of different actors in the system. Turning such rationales and questions into action is what is often spelt out in so-called ‘rights-based approaches’ exploring how, for example, to integrate human rights norms, standards, and principles into policy, planning, and outcomes. The Norwegian-funded Our Common Dignity Initiative sought to respond to this new space by deepening the discussion around rights in heritage complementing a broader history of discussions.

Human rights and cultural heritage in Norwegian development cooperation

Human rights and cultural heritage have an interesting history as part of Norway’s evolving policy on development cooperation. We here mainlyfocus on country-level cooperation and do not include the equally extensive work by NGOs and other institutions.

In the early 1960s Norway took major steps to increase its engagement on international development aid. NORAD, The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, was established in 1968 as an independent directorate under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Human rights were early on defined as a fundamental principle on which Norwegian international development policy should be based. A White Paper, a key document indicating government policy, from 1971 thus gave priority to countries that showed a willingness to embrace democracy and respect human rights. Subsequent White Papers show increasing domestic and international concern for human rights.1

In 1989, the Norwegian Sami Parliament was established recognizing indigenous rights to self-determination in number of fields. Norway was the first Nordic country to ratify ILO’s (International Labour Organization) convention No 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and later supported the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In the 1990s, Norway revised its law on human rights, and confirmed its commitment to human rights and foreign policy in subsequent policy documents (White Papers of 1995-1996, 1998-1999 and 1999-2000). This guided international cooperation policy for the next decade underlining willingness to dialogue with foreign governments on human rights, and to accept problems that might arise from this focus.2 While country ownership was stressed in development cooperation, the rights dimension was upheld to be part of all Norwegian development cooperation activity. Cultural rights were, however, only mentioned for the first time in a 2003 White Paper noting that every people has the right to develop its own culture and that values of their culture should be respected and protected.3

Cultural heritage protection as a (Norwegian) field of cooperation

UNESCO has been a central reference point for Norwegian heritage cooperation since the 1950s.

Soon after the decision was made to build the Aswan High Dam in Lower Egypt in 1954, UNESCO launched an international campaign to save what is today known as the ‘Nubian Monuments’, a World Heritage site (Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae) inscribed on the WH List in 1979. The UNESCO campaign drew unprecedented international attention that also included support from Norway.

In the mid-1960s was spearheaded a drive for an international convention to protect both cultural and natural heritage, which would become the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (the Honorable Russell E. Train).

Such a convention was understood to support the importance of heritage as a bulwark against extremism, as a force to strengthen ‘a sense of kinship with one another as part of a single, global community’. Norway ratified the 1972 Convention in May 1977.

Earlier, Norway had in 1961 ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. However, little specific financial or technical support was provided internationally by Norway in the field of cultural and natural heritage until the early 1980s.

In 1972, the new Ministry of Environment set out to include built heritage as ‘an integral part of the people’s environment’ after Norway ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention in 1977, three inscriptions o the UNESCO World Heritage List resulted within a few years. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the international debate on how to include cultural heritage in the development paradigm grew. A heritage component was integrated in NORADs Development Strategy 1980-1982. Norway was arguably amongst the pioneers in this area, to be followed (international institutions including the World Bank) over the next decade. With this component integrated in official Foreign Office priorities and development strategies (the NORAD Strategy dated 1980-1982), the Directorate for Cultural Heritage (under the Ministry of Environment) for a first time entered the field of development cooperation.

Heritage protection projects were initially undertaken in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania-Zanzibar, and Mozambique), and in the Middle East (Yemen, in the capital Sanaa) (Figure 13.1).4

The Old City of Sana’a Yemen - Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986 (copyright Amund Sinding-Larsen)

Figure 13.1 The Old City of Sana’a Yemen - Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986 (copyright Amund Sinding-Larsen).

BOX 13.1 NORAD-funded projects where local community participation. Capacity building and empowerment were highlighted in settlements with unique heritage resources.

Republic of Tanzania

Bagamoyo Conservation Training Program

Bagamoyo was for several centuries an important coastal base for Zanzibar and the Swahili and Arab trade on the East-Africa interior. It was largely vacated after the independence of Tanzania, and buildings and the urban structure left to dilapidate. Subsequently conventional Swahili-house neighbourhoods grew up around the historic stone town. Between 1982 and 1987, a pilot training programme, funded by NORAD and the Ford Foundation, on traditional crafts was set up to develop local capacity to maintain urban heritage - and strengthen heritage management capacity.

Republic of Tanzania

Gizenga Street Conservation Project, Zanzibar Stone Town,

The urban fabric of Zanzibar Stone Town steadily deteriorated after the 1960s Independence of Tanzania. As a contribution to the national Stone Town Conservation Programme, Norwegian support selected a historic building in Gizenga Street in consultation with the local community and authority for restoration and adaptive reuse. The project was the first completed building upgrading project in the Stone Town raising awareness with both private and public sector about the importance and viability of such environmental initiatives.

Republic of Yemen

Samsarah Al-Nahas Conservation Project, Sanaa Old Town

Sanaa historic city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986. NORAD support to an upgrading programme was the first project prepared by Yemen with UNESCO for the National Conservation Authority aiming to revitalize the historic urban fabric and infrastructure. The specific project objective was to remodel and restore for adaptive reuse the Samsarah Al-Nahas, a major building as a national crafts training centre and commercial outlet for the craftsmen. The project involved the first craft training programmes for men and women available in Yemen. The Samsarah Al-Nahas project was co-funded by Yemen and Norway and the ILO (the training programme) between 1985 and 1989.

Republic of Zambia

Mbereshi and Mwenzo Conservation Projects

The Mbereshi and Mwenzo Mission stations in Zambia Northern Region were established in late 19th century. NORAD funding supported the upgrading and adaptive reuse of the original 19th-century buildings. The original community centres still provided primary health and educational facilities for resident and hinterland populations significantly beyond those they were built for.

Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Karimabad Village Upgrading, Hunza, Pakistan Northern Areas

Karimabad is a major historic settlement or town of the Upper Hunza, located below Baltit Fort (probably founded in the 13th CE). The village was possibly established in the ll-12th centuries, and has had a recent population of ca. 5000. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture initiated the project in cooperation with the Getty Foundation and NORAD. The project addressed monuments restoration (Baltit Fort) overall village and infrastructure upgrading, local community support, crafts training, women empowerment training and household ‘micro-credit’ schemes.

Baltit Fort and Royal Palace above Karimabad, the capital of Hunza District in Gilgit-Baltistan Province on the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan Northern Areas (copyright Amund Sinding-Larsen)

Figure 13.2 Baltit Fort and Royal Palace above Karimabad, the capital of Hunza District in Gilgit-Baltistan Province on the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan Northern Areas (copyright Amund Sinding-Larsen).


In connection with the above projects, AS-L acted as advisor and consultant to Norad and the Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage. For the Karimabad Village Upgrading and further projects in Baltistan, Pakistan Northern Areas, refer figure 13.2, AS-L following the initial period acted as advisor and consultant to the Aga Khan Historic Cities Support Programme.

Norway became member of the World Heritage Committee for the first time in 1984. This would trigger Norway, UNESCO, and ICCROM to develop an international training course on wood conservation, a course that is still running every other year in Norway.

The 1992 Rio conference (The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992) triggered debates also in Norway on the lack of a cultural heritage perspective in the sustainable development paradigm. Throughout the 1990s, Norwegian support to international cultural heritage projects increased significantly. Norwegian involvement in the global report Our Creative Diversity, published in 1995 by the World Commission on Culture and Development illustrated both international engagement and offered a normative basis for policy development.5

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided funding to UNESCO for implementing the World Heritage Convention, for instance by supporting the UNESCOs programme ‘World Heritage in Young Hands’ from the mid-1990s for ten years, and in funding the African World Heritage Fund (established 2006). Under the ‘Receiver-managed’ policy, numerous local projects were supported through Embassies. Several projects involved the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Zambia, Uganda, South Africa and Pakistan. Bilateral agreements with Russia and China were expanded to include cultural heritage. Between 2000 and 2008, Norway supported 60 cultural heritage projects (mostly in Africa and Asia) with a budget contribution of close to NOK 275 million (NORAD, 2009) - or ca USD 34 Mill at current rate. From 1998 to 2014, the Ministry of Environment funded a so-called UNESCO Category 2 Centre for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, located in Oslo.6

However, the direct link between cultural heritage and human rights in international development cooperation was not explicit from the beginning. In 2006, the Norwegian UNESCO commission raised questions about human rights linked to the World Heritage Convention, first of all in terms of property rights and local participation. ICOMOS Norway, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Human Rights Centre of Oslo

University joined the national commission on this and brought the topic to the Ministry’s attention. ICOMOS Norway introduced the three Advisory Bodies to the project - and subsequently also the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2011 onwards). Civil society action, in other words, raised the topic ultimately triggering ten years of support from the Ministry of Environment (later Ministry of Climate and Environment) to the ICOMOS Norway led initiative ‘Our Common Dignity’.

In 2012, a White Paper shifted the focus of Norway’s cultural cooperation from building institutions and general expertise in the field of intangible heritage towards supporting the creative and performing arts. Support increasingly targeted the later UNESCO conventions on intangible culture heritage and the diversity of cultural expressions as well as towards safeguarding cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict and to hinder illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

Since 2016, the Ministry of Climate and Environment co-funds the so-called ‘World Heritage Leadership Programme’, a 6-year capacity building initiative run by IUCN and ICCROM. The programme includes some reference to rights issues, particularly on indigenous issues, and the role of local populations. Norway once again elected a member of the World Heritage Committee, now till 2021, World Heritage is once again at the centre of Norway’s attention.

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