Odesa and World Heritage Politics

14 March 2023, 0900 EDT

The Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage  (“The World Heritage Convention”) entered into force in 1975. The world heritage regime, in effect, produces the shared heritage of humanity. States use their right, as set by the Convention, to nominate sites within their borders; the files accompanying the nomination make the case for the site’s “outstanding universal value.” The relevant Advisory Body—for cultural heritage sites, the International Council of Museums and Sites (ICOMOS)— evaluates the site and its file. The intergovernmental World Heritage Committee, composed of twenty-one rotating members, discusses the site, the file, and the ICOMOS recommendation during its annual meeting; it makes the final decision on additions to the World Heritage List.

The Convention requires the World Heritage Committee to meet annually to take the regime’s implementing decisions. The Russian Federation was supposed to host last year’s meeting during June. But Russia’s war on Ukraine led to strong pressures for a change in location; in the end, the session was indefinitely postponed.

In October 2022, Ukrainian President Zelensky officially nominated the Historic Centre of Odesa for inscription on the World Heritage List. He did so under the emergency procedure for sites facing immediate danger. Thus, if the nomination succeeded Odesa would also be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which designates sites “for which major operations are necessary and for which assistance has been requested under the Convention.” 

To fulfill its obligations under the Convention, the Committee held an extraordinary session at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters in December 2022. During this meeting, the Committee decided to convene a second extraordinary session in January 2023. 

The agenda for the January 2023 meeting had three substantive items; the third item read “any other matter.” Italy, Belgium, Japan, Greece and Bulgaria advanced Odesa’s nomination by placing the “evaluation of nominations to be processed on an emergency basis” under that third item.

The Russian Federation responded with a series of procedural moves aimed at preventing the nomination from moving forward. The debate grew heated enough for the Saudi Arabian chair of the meeting to make multiple calls for order and civility.

The Russian objection focused on the rushed nature of the nomination.

The vote to adopt the meeting agenda was unprecedented in the regime’s history. It had to be repeated at each step of Odesa’s consideration for world heritage designation. During each vote, thirteen or fourteen Committee Members abstained. These abstentions by Asian and African Delegations reflect their broader refusal to take part in some of the Western-liberal actions on the Ukrainian conflict. The Russian Federation was the only Committee Member that voted in favor of its own proposals. Proposals by the countries sponsoring Odesa’s nomination got between five to seven votes. Since the required majority is calculated by members present and voting, supporters of Odesa’s inscription carried the day.

Odesa’s nomination took place via an emergency process. The Palestinian Authority regularly uses this process in an effort to get sites in its territory added to the List (two of its world heritage sites are currently on the Danger List). Israel always objects, arguing that those sites face no real danger. The Russian objection was different; it focused on the rushed nature of the nomination. Its Delegation expressed regret at not having been afforded the time to “generously share[] the documents from our archives including the decree by the Empress and the regional plans and the maps.”   

In response, the Committee Members, the Secretariat and ICOMOS argued that regular timelines and procedures are not applicable to emergency nominations. Multiple speakers emphasized that what mattered were the site’s “outstanding universal value” and the emergency it faced—referred to as “reasons we all know” or “Russia’s war of aggression.”

On 25 January 2023, UNESCO’s intergovernmental World Heritage Committee added the Historic Centre of Odesa (Ukraine) to the World Heritage List. Inclusion on the World Heritage List means that Odesa has “outstanding universal value.” It is, therefore, part of the shared heritage of humanity.

But why did Ukraine nominate Odesa in the first place? 

World Heritage as Extension of Sovereignty

Russia’s invasion aimed to capture Odesa, and it seems likely that Moscow intended to ultimately annex the city. By successfully nominating Odesa, Kyiv reinforced international acknowledgement of its sovereignty over the city.

Article 3 of the World Heritage Convention states that sites can (only) be nominated by states on whose territory they are located. Therefore, Ukraine’s nomination of Odesa is an act of claiming sovereignty over the territory on which the city is located. 

Further, sites are placed on the World Heritage List under the name of the nominating country and with specific boundaries. Thus, with its addition to the List, Odesa has been internationally registered as a Ukrainian (world heritage) site.  

Ukraine’s nomination of Odesa is an act of claiming sovereignty over the city

To be clear, the Convention is not only a sovereignty-boosting mechanism. When placing sites on the List, states forfeit certain sovereign prerogatives and take on internationally sourced conservation and presentation requirements. However, in cases of contested sovereignty, the regime presents states with the opportunity to internationally register debated boundaries under their name. 

The “Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls” nomination by Jordan in 1978 gave rise to the regime’s first debates on this matter. Ultimately, the site was inscribed in an extraordinary session. While Israel acceded to the Convention in 1999 and Palestine was admitted to UNESCO in 2011, the Old City of Jerusalem remains the only world heritage site not listed under a country.

Other contested boundary sites have since been nominated. The best-known case is Cambodia’s 2008 nomination of the Preah Vihear, amidst objections by Thailand. The inscription led to clashes along the disputed Thai-Cambodian border where the temple sits. 

The Palestinian delegation’s remarks after the inscription of Hebron’s Old Town (2017) similarly attests to the dynamics of claiming and extending sovereignty via world heritage: “Palestine, as a sovereign state, even though it is occupied, has exercised its right to inscribe on the World Heritage List a city that is on its territory. It should be a trivial statement that people are masters of their own territory.”

In these cases, the Secretariat or the Advisory Body invokes Article 11 of the Convention. This article states that inscriptions do not prejudice contested sovereignty claims. And yet, as the examples show, states use the regime to internationally register contested territories under their name, and reinforce their sovereignty.

Narrating Odesa: A Liberal, Multicultural, Ukrainian-World City

The terms of the nomination itself reinforced Kyiv’s efforts to associate Ukraine with Europe and the liberal international order. 

Designating sites as world heritage involves describing their “universal value.” The nomination files, evaluations, and Committee discussions become exercises in narrative representation. 

The nomination file describes historic Odesa as universally valuable as “a fragment of Late Renaissance Western European civilization,” a vibrant trade port, and a melting pot of different ethnic groups. Similarly, in his speech after the site’s addition to the List, the Ukrainian representative described Odesa as a multinational heritage “created by Greeks, French, Italians, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and other nationalities.” 

As critical scholars have long noted, heritage is never simply about the past. Heritage is made from the present and shaped by its concerns. Heritage-making traces cultural histories of contemporary political communities. It aims to project these communities to a future that follows from their past.

Bulgaria and Greece emphasized close ties to multicultural Odesa

The nomination represents Odesa, and Ukraine more broadly, as part of past and present European culture. Further, it attaches the site and the country to valued elements of the liberal international order, namely, free trade and multicultural tolerance. Values of a virtuous cycle of trade and prosperity made possible by and fostering peaceful multiculturalism have been part of liberal-internationalism and integral to world heritage regime’s vision of humanity.  

These threads repeat in the ICOMOS evaluation. The Advisory Body described Odesa as a city located on the Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea, which prospered in the 19th century as a result of liberal trade policies and the presence of diverse communities. Odesa was deemed universally valuable as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, cosmopolitan, historical city. 

During the discussion of the site, the sponsoring countries referred to ICOMOS’s positive evaluation but focused on the closure of the debate to prevent further objections by the Russian Federation. After the inscription, however, Bulgaria and Greece took the floor to emphasize their countries’ close ties to multicultural and tolerant Odesa. 

These interventions recognize and affirm the insertion of Odesa and Ukraine into structures of international, liberal values. 

Such insertion is strengthened by the continued reference to the site as Ukrainian. For example, speaking on behalf of the Friends of Ukraine, the United Kingdom emphasized Odesa’s importance for “Ukraine’s rich history” as well as “global world heritage.” As a result, Odesa remains at once Ukrainian and becomes internationally recognized as part of a European and liberal-international world. 

Moreover, these representations move Odesa and Ukraine away from Russia’s narrative frames. 

Evidencing those frames, the Russian Federation’s Delegate remarked that “it would not be an exaggeration to say that for every Russian, the beautiful city of Odesa holds a special place in history and culture.” The Delegation elaborated on the Russian attachment to Odesa as “the so-called southern Palmyra, a hero city of the great patriotic war.” These remarks represent Odesa as belonging to Soviet history instead of the European Renaissance. The Delegation’s remarks, quoted earlier, on the Russian Federation’s willingness to open its archives and share the Empress’s decree further narrates Odesa as part of Russian imperial history. 

A second member of the Delegation objected to the nomination’s “omission of the role of Russian culture and language in the development of Odesa.” He quoted from a 19th century traveler who “for objective reasons does not mention Ukrainians, due to the fact that there was no distinct Ukrainian nation group in these centuries.” Therefore, the Delegate contended, it is incorrect to describe Odesa as a Ukrainian city in the 18th-19th centuries. 

If heritage is never simply about the past, then these remarks are not only about prior centuries. If heritage-making narrates histories of contemporary political communities with an eye to the future, then these se representations locate Ukraine’s present and future as intertwined with Russia. 

Embedding Odesa in International Legal Mechanisms

After the designation of Odesa as world heritage, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay wrote that it is “thus placed under the reinforced protection of the international community. While the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city… is preserved from further destruction.” 

As the United Kingdom recalled in its speech, the Convention posits that the loss of world heritage sites amounts to the “harmful impoverishment of all nations of the world.” Crucially, Article 6 of the Convention commits states “not to take any deliberate measures that might directly or indirectly damage the cultural and natural heritage on the territory of another State Party.” 

One can recall here the recent and well-publicized destructions of Timbuktu and Palmyra world heritage sites. Here, the world heritage designation inserted the two sites into moral and legal frameworks of international protection. International news media used world-heritage narratives to draw attention to the value of the sites and the loss at stake. The International Criminal Court charged an Ansar Dine member with war crimes for Timbuktu’s destruction.

In fact, the Russian Federation has made use of this moral universe in the past. To mark its contribution to the military campaign that took Palmyra back from ISIS, Russia organized a classical music concert in the ancient amphitheater. The concert positioned Russia as standing on the side of civilization against barbarity. In contrast to the opprobrium that the Russian Federation has received for its actions in the Syrian war, the liberation of Palmyra gave rise to conversations between UNESCO and Vladimir Putin on how to best protect and preserve the site. 

And now, the world heritage designation of Odesa places the Russian Federation on the other side of this moral-legal universe.

[i] The recordings of the extraordinary meeting are available for public access. All quotations from the meeting are transcriptions by the author and they are linked to the relevant recording.