UNESCO's International Cultural Heritage Conventions

The cultural heritage sector is governed by a number of UNESCO's international conventions which Finland has also committed itself to. These conventions steer and guide the operations of the Finnish Heritage Agency, in addition to which the Agency participates in the preparation and realisation of the measures required by the conventions.

The World Heritage Convention

The Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage is an international convention that was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. Concern over the preservation of the world’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations formed the main foundation for the Convention. The aim of the Convention is to identify, safeguard, preserve and present the world’s most valuable cultural and natural heritage through international collaboration. World heritage belongs to all humanity, and all nations are thereby charged with its protection. Finland ratified the Convention in 1987. In Finland, the Convention is governed by the Ministry of Education and Culture, but the Finnish Heritage Agency is in charge of its implementation. By early 2017, 193 nations had ratified the Convention.  

The responsibilities of a State Party
States that have ratified the Convention are responsible for the identification and documentation of any future world heritage sites and for their nomination to the world heritage list. The States Parties to the Convention must also maintain their existing world heritage sites. The States Parties are encouraged to engage in international cooperation to ensure the preservation of their shared heritage. Reports on the World Heritage sites’ protection status must also be submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre every six years. These reports indicate how the State Party is implementing the Convention and maintaining the World Heritage sites in its territory. Negative developments may lead to a World Heritage site being moved to the List of World Heritage in Danger. In the worst case, a site may lose its World Heritage status.

The World Heritage List
States that have ratified the Convention may nominate their sites for the World Heritage List. The sites on the list are categorised as cultural sites, natural sites and mixed sites. A World Heritage site may consist of one or more individual sites (a serial site). Even with a serial site, each individual constituent of the series must add special value to the whole. The sites may be located in the territory of one or several countries (a cross-border site). Approximately 20–30 new sites are added to the World Heritage List annually. The milestone of 1000 listed sites was reached in 2014. The current number and type of heritage sites can be checked on the World Heritage Centre’s website

Tentative list
Sites nominated for inscription must come from a national tentative list, which lists potential cultural, natural and mixed sites to be nominated for the World Heritage List in the future. The tentative list should be updated approximately every ten years. In 2018, the Finnish Heritage Agency is keeping the Finnish tentative list updated in cooperation with the nature services provided by Metsähallitus, is consulting local experts and Åland, and is drawing up a proposal for an updated tentative list, based on the consultations. The tentative list, updated according to the national world heritage strategy, will contain two to four sites. Together with the existing selection, the sites on the tentative list will form a credible, balanced and representative sample of Finland’s most valuable cultural and natural sites.  

Special attention will be paid to the underrepresented thematic categories when selecting the sites, in accordance with the Global Strategy launched in connection with the Convention. These underrepresented categories include 20th century architecture, cultural landscapes/expansive landscape areas, industrial sites, subsistence strategies, and traditional human settlements with their surroundings. In comparison, the overrepresented sites include historic urban landscapes (the Middle Ages, European), religious monuments (Christianity, in particular) and historical periods (vs. prehistory and the 20th century).

Mixed sites that include both cultural and natural elements, serial sites consisting of several individual sites, and cross-border sites take priority. In addition, the possibilities of including sites that represent underwater cultural heritage in the tentative list are being explored.

Finland’s current tentative list sites are listed on the World Heritage Centre’s website.

What are the requirements for a World Heritage site nominee?
A site nominated as a World Heritage site must form an integral whole. In other words, it must include, as intact and undisturbed as possible, all the elements that are vital for the expression of the site’s universal value. A cultural heritage site is also expected to possess authenticity within its own cultural context, based on, for example, its form, materials, function or tradition.

Furthermore, a World Heritage site nominee must be under long-term formal or contract-based protection against threats that may negatively affect its values. It should be noted that being a World Heritage site does not, in itself, guarantee protection; instead, protection must be organised within the framework of national legislation, at the highest possible protection level. The site must have clear boundaries and a surrounding buffer zone. The management of the site area must comply with a maintenance and utilisation plan, carefully compiled for the site, and all operations in the site area must be ecologically and culturally sustainable. The site must also have the support of the local community. In addition, the site must meet at least one of the ten criteria.  

All of these aforementioned requirements give a site its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV).  

The nomination process
When a site is intended to be nominated for the World Heritage List, the State Party will present the nomination file to the World Heritage Centre. Preparing a nomination proposal requires resources, and in practice the proposal should be made as a collaborative project, with support from the Finnish Heritage Agency. The annual deadline for submitting the nomination files is 1 February. The World Heritage Centre will forward the completed proposals to expert organisations (ICOMOS for cultural sites and IUCN for natural sites) for evaluation. By the end of January the following year, these expert organisations will give their preliminary views on the site nominations to the nominator State Parties and request possible additional information. Six weeks prior to the annual (June–July) Committee meeting, the expert organisations will give their final recommendations on the nomination proposals. The World Heritage Committee will make the final decision on the inscription of new world heritage sites. More information on the nomination process can be found in Preparing World Heritage nominations – Resource Manual.

The World Heritage Committee
The World Heritage Committee consists of 21 member states that are elected for a six-year term by the States Parties to the Convention at the General Assembly, held every other year. In recent years, the Committee’s member states have voluntarily begun to limit their term to four years. In addition to the inscription decisions on new world heritage sites, the World Heritage Committee monitors the condition of the sites already on the list and decides on the allocation of the World Heritage Fund resources. Finland was a member of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in 1999–2004 and 2014–2017. During both of these terms, Finland was represented by experts from the Finnish Heritage Agency. Experts from the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs also took part in the Finnish World Heritage Committee work. In the global world heritage work, Finland’s emphasis is on the appropriate development of the World Heritage sites’ management and protection plans, and balancing out the World Heritage List so that, for example, more site nominations could be included from the more underrepresented geographical regions (Africa and the Pacific). In addition, Finland stresses the importance of increasing general awareness about the World Heritage work through such means as World Heritage education.   

Finland and the world heritage
Finland’s World Heritage work is governed by the Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the Convention, the so-called Global Strategy adopted by the World Heritage Committee in 1994, the National World Heritage Strategy 2015–2025 completed under the monitoring of the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the accompanying Implementation Plan. The Finnish Heritage Agency grants aid for the maintenance of Finland’s World Heritage sites, as well as for research and development projects. There are currently seven World Heritage sites in Finland. Six of these are cultural sites and one is a natural site.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre
The World Heritage Sites on UNESCO’s website

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in 2003. In Finland the Convention was ratified in May 2013. The Finnish Heritage Agency is responsible for the national implementation in Finland.

Living intangible cultural heritage includes oral tradition, performing arts, social customs and ceremonies. It can also entail crafts, culinary traditions, games or nature-related know-how.

The aim of the Convention is to promote the preservation of living intangible cultural heritage and raise awareness of its importance. The Convention emphasises the importance of passing on traditions, promoting cultural diversity, and having people participate in cultural heritage.

The spirit of the Convention requires communities to play a central role in the identification and definition of intangible culture heritage. Finland is implementing the Convention by promoting and securing the protection of intangible cultural heritage through education, research and recording, for example. An expert group on intangible cultural heritage has been appointed to provide support in the implementation and guidance on matters concerning intangible cultural heritage.

The circles of living heritage function as the main implementation tool – as hubs where operators from varying fields can meet and as bodies that coordinate the activities. So far, circles of living heritage have been established for crafts, nature, folk music/dance, and oral tradition.

The UNESCO Convention also includes creating an inventory of intangible cultural heritage at both the national and international levels. The resulting inventory is a tool which can be used to identify, describe and convey knowledge and information about living tradition. Since 2016, examples of intangible cultural heritage have been compiled on the living heritage list on Wikipedia. Currently, the list contains 130 elements from over 180 parties in five languages. 

Elements in the Wikipedia list may be nominated for inclusion in the national inventory of living heritage, and the number of such nominations is currently 52. The next opportunity to apply for inclusion in the national inventory will be in 2019 at the earliest. Elements listed in the national inventory can be nominated for inclusion in UNESCO's international lists of intangible cultural heritage. Decisions on which elements are to be included in the national inventory and nominated for inscription are made by the Ministry of Education and Culture, based on the proposal by the Finnish Heritage Agency and the expert group on intangible cultural heritage.  

Living heritage website
Wiki-inventory for Living Heritage
National Inventory of Living Heritage
Facebook page
Youtube channel

The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

Although Finland has not yet ratified the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2001 by the UNESCO General Conference, the Convention is already strongly influencing our operations. The Convention emphasises the significance of the underwater cultural heritage as part of the shared cultural heritage of peoples and countries. According to the Convention’s key protection principle, culture-historical discoveries should primarily remain at their discovery location. If artefacts or their fragments are lifted from water during research, the long-term preservation of the cultural heritage should be ensured by means of conservation and administration.

UNESCO’s Convention and the Finnish Antiquities Act contain similar basic principles regarding the protection of archaeological and underwater cultural heritage. Discoveries must be reported to the authorities, and shipwrecks that have been under water for at least 100 years are considered ancient relics.

Pieces of cultural heritage must not be lifted from the water to achieve financial gain, and the research material from a cultural heritage site should not be irreversibly damaged. Research that disturbs underwater cultural heritage – for example, an archaeological excavation – requires a permit. In order to promote general awareness, responsible diving at shipwreck sites should be encouraged. International cooperation, research and training support successful protection. 

The main items in UNESCO’s convention article pertaining to underwater cultural heritage include the definition of underwater cultural heritage as well as the legal means and global cooperation mechanisms utilised in its protection. The appendix section defines the rules for marine archaeological research and documentation, which the Finnish Heritage Agency already follows. The ratification process of the Convention is currently underway in Finland.

Read more about UNESCO’s Convention Article concerning Underwater Cultural Heritage here

The Hague Convention

The Hague Convention from 1954 is a humanitarian convention under UNESCO that aims to protect cultural property under conditions of armed conflict. The Convention was created after World War II, when a considerable amount of European cultural heritage had been destroyed as a result of direct and indirect attacks and looting. The Convention was founded on the idea that the destruction of individual nations’ cultural property is not only a national loss but diminishes the culture of humanity as a whole. Although the Convention is partly outdated, it is still a valid document that has become part of international law. Finland ratified the Convention and the related Protocol in 1994.

The aim of the Hague Convention is that during an armed conflict, the warring parties would avoid attacking cultural heritage while also excluding locations considered to be part of the cultural property from any military action that could damage the site or justify hostile retaliation from the opposing side. Therefore, the Convention requires that the States Parties prepare themselves for the protection of cultural property while there is peace, and increase the awareness of their citizens and military on what the Convention entails. 

The Act on the implementation of certain provisions of the Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and on the application of the Protocol

The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property

Finland has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Convention states that the interchange of cultural property ‘increases the knowledge of the civilisation of Man, enriches the cultural life of all peoples and inspires mutual respect and appreciation among nations.’ Cultural property is one of the basic elements of civilisation and national culture, whose true value can only be understood in a context in which our knowledge of its origin, history and traditional environment is as extensive as possible. Therefore, the states that have signed the Convention have a responsibility to protect the cultural property in their territory from theft and illicit export.

The Unidroit Convention, signed in Rome in 1995, contains detailed regulations on the return of stolen or illegally exported cultural property, complementing the UNESCO Convention with regard to the sections that Finland, too, considers inadequate.

The Act on adopting certain regulations of the Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects and the application of the Convention