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Protecting our world heritage – Mgr Joe Vella Gauci

That Malta is rich in history and cultural heritage is an understatement and, quite frankly, never stated often enough.

We were indeed lucky that in 1980, the whole of Valletta City, the Hypogeum and the Ġgantija temples were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

In 1992, the Megalithic Temples of Malta, including Ħaġrat, Skorba, Mnajdra, Ħaġar Qim and Tarxien, were added on to the World Heritage List. These sites possess values of outstanding and universal character. Thus, our responsibility to maintain and preserve them lies not only towards our nation but towards the whole of humanity.

This mirrors the responsibilities that each and every other guardian country has in preserving its world heritage – responsibilities that emanate from the signing and ratification of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. It is a result of this 1972 convention that the state and UNESCO keep an open channel of communication.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre monitors world heritage sites in a continuous manner by maintaining an open dialogue with all member states through their respective permanent representatives, by monitoring through various regional offices and a network of NGOs, and by receiving third-party correspondence from members of the public.

The centre engages in a professional and diplomatic dialogue and it never lays down a heavy hand, nor does it compromise the sovereignty of the member states. Rather, it gives weight to the national authorities in drawing up its conclusions. The World Heritage Centre and UNESCO have never acted in a patronising big-brother manner.

In my 10-year experience, there has never been an instance where the Maltese authorities were contradicted by the World Heritage Centre. On an ad hoc basis since 2013, and now by virtue of the latest amendments to the Cultural Heritage Act, the Maltese relevant authorities have met in what is known as the National World Heritage Technical Committee, under the auspices of the Ministry for the National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government.

This is Malta’s technical committee (often erroneously referred to in the media as the UNESCO committee), which the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage usually consults when a development proposal is considered to have any form of impact on a World Heritage Site.


Unilateral criticism levelled at national authorities is not always fair and just– Mgr Joe Vella Gauci


It also advises the government on the protection of world heritage properties and helps Malta’s permanent representative to UNESCO formulate replies whenever information is sought from the World Heritage Centre.

In fact, various correspondence from the World Heritage Centre commends the conduct and decisions of this technical committee time and again. Free from undue pressure, the authorities sitting on the committee have always debated and discussed the protection and conservation of the world heritage sites in Malta in a professional and informed manner.

More often than not, decisions have been unanimous and when differences emerged, the counsel of the World Heritage Centre or its advisors has been sought. To this extent, away from the glare of the media as requested by the World Heritage Centre, Malta has invited several advisory missions to seek advice on certain development projects. Nonetheless, the Maltese authorities have always helped the administration of the country to take wise and sensible decisions.

And while landowners, property developers and the lot may advance development applications, no matter how controversial they may appear, igniting a justified chorus of public indignation along the way, unilateral criticism levelled at national authorities is not always fair and just.

Within some of these institutions, we are fortunate to still have the first or second generation of individuals who over the past 40 years have built institutions and reputations to preserve, conserve and advance our cultural heritage. Indeed, the country stands to benefit from having the next generation of cultural heritage leaders mentored by those who have plenty of experience and expertise.

It is time, I believe, for a thorough process of mental decolonisation, for the country’s administration, institutions and public alike. It is time to put more trust and provide more resources as well as autonomy of conscience into our institutional operators.

With the right mechanisms for open governance and accountability in place, I very much believe that we can move forward from a system where the public resorts to cry foul at the doors of international heritage institutions to a practice where a healthy, fruitful debate takes place in an unbiased manner locally.

Mgr Joe Vella Gauci is ambassador and permanent delegate of Malta to UNESCO.

Article Source: Times of Malta