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What do Human Rights have to do with World Heritage conservation in Bagan?

Anne Laura Kraak from Deakin University shares her lessons from her ongoing research on the application of a human rights based approach to the heritage of Bagan. And she offers some surprising ideas. _________________

Human rights-based approaches have been around in the development and aid sector for 15-20 years and in 2003 they became official policy of several UN agencies, including UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation). One of UNESCO’s most famous programmes is that of World Heritage protection.

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that human rights can be at stake when World Heritage sites are protected. For example, while unique, special or stunning sites are protected, communities are evicted from their homes and land, development restrictions trap people in poverty, and access to sacred/spiritual sites or practices is denied. So is a human rights approach a useful way to understand heritage work?

Currently, a World Heritage nomination for Bagan is being prepared and my research is about the potential of human rights-based approaches to address issues of social justice at this site. Here are five lessons I’ve learnt:

1. Human rights language is not used much in the context of the World Heritage nomination. There are several explanations for this. It remains a sensitive topic in Myanmar and is sometimes deliberately avoided, but it is also not clear whether ‘human rights’ are able to provide answers to some of the challenges Bagan faces.

2. It is unclear what the meaning of cultural rights is in Bagan. Many pagodas underwent major reconstructions and renovations as part of Buddhist merit making projects. This is contrary to international conservation standards, which aim to conserve old buildings their ‘original’ way. Do cultural rights mean the right to renovate and reconstruct pagodas, or the right to conserve monuments for future generations? Who decides?

3. Human rights are in conflict with each other in Bagan: such as development rights and cultural rights. Tourism and associated development are rapidly increasing. This is great for many people who see opportunities to raise their standard of living. To prevent damage to the ancient pagodas, World Heritage protection comes with certain development restrictions (which are currently being negotiated). The protection of cultural rights (access to and the enjoyment of the landscape and the pagodas) can be in conflict with the right to development.

4. There may be a lot of international talk about human rights-based approaches, but how can they be enforced? In Myanmar, capacity to enforce laws remains low. But the international community is not doing much better. There are few effective enforcement mechanisms to prevent human rights violations (Before the reforms, Myanmar has shown that neither sanctions nor business as usual are likely get leaders to respect human rights).

5. Despite its popularity, a universalistic language like human rights may not always be the most appropriate or effective way to address ethical challenges and ensure social justice. Depending on the context, other terms (maybe participation or sustainability or perhaps a local concept or understanding) have more potential.

See a longer article of Anna's on this topic at…/…/10.1080/10286632.2015.1066782

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