Unesco to debate war heritage before deciding on Flanders Fields recognition


Unesco’s advisory board has announced that it will thoroughly debate the application to recognise First World War memorials and burial sites as World Heritage

The Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery in Heuvelland
Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery

Final decision next month

Unesco has announced that it wants to open a debate on the recognition of war cemeteries and memorials as World Heritage. The statement follows a committee’s advice to reject Belgium’s application to recognise First World War sites as World Heritage.

Last month, the Unesco advisory board Icomos recommended that the application for recognition be denied because Unesco should not glorify or honour war. “Icomos considers that this nomination raises some fundamental issues with regard to the purpose and scope of the World Heritage Convention and its appropriateness to celebrate properties that commemorate aspects of wars and conflicts,” wrote Icomos in its advice. “Even when sites are proposed as a call for peace and reconciliation, ultimately their value is related to the conflict which generated them.”

The board’s advice was a blow to Flanders, which worked for years on the application together with Wallonia and France. The file contains more than 130 sites related to the First World War and was submitted during the war’s four-year centenary.

Nineteen of the included locations are in Flanders and include some of the region’s best-known sites such as the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot Cemetery and the Nieuwpoort Memorial. But it also includes less famous sites such as the Oeren Belgian Military Cemetery in Alveringem and the Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery in Heuvelland (pictured).

‘Peace and reconciliation’

Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois was very critical of Icomos’s advice, telling Radio 1 that “it is about cemeteries and monuments to remember the dead, about peace, values, individuals and reconciliation. These are just the principles on which Unesco was founded”.

Belgium and France submitted additional information to Unesco, and now Icomos has announced that it will postpone its official advice pending a thorough debate on the issue. “They have grave concerns about setting a precedent that opens up the World Heritage list to conflicts that are still very politically sensitive today,” says Bourgeois. “In retracting their advice, we are afforded the opportunity to show how strong and unique our application is, where the messages of peace and reconciliation are central.”

The decision whether to recognise the First World War sites as World Heritage will be made at the annual World Heritage Committee session from 24 June to 4 July in Bahrain. Representatives from Flanders will be present to defend the application.

Photo courtesy Agentschap Onroeren Erfgoed