Understanding World Heritage: what is outstanding universal value?

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012

Australia's world heritage-listed properties are internationally recognised for their outstanding universal value. This fact sheet explains what that means.

World Heritage listing

World heritage sites are places that are important to and belong to everyone, regardless of where they are located. They are an irreplaceable legacy that the global community has decided to protect for the future.

There are 962 properties from around the world on the World Heritage List. Australia has 19 properties on the World Heritage List, which means that those properties are recognised by the global community as having special significance which needs to be protected for future generations to enjoy. (see www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/world/index.html and whc.unesco.org/en/list)

The common feature of all properties inscribed on the World Heritage List is that they meet the requirements for outstanding universal value (OUV).

What is Outstanding Universal Value?

Outstanding universal value is the central idea of the World Heritage Convention. Broadly, its meaning follows the common sense interpretation of the words:

  • Outstanding: For properties to be of outstanding universal value they should be exceptional, or superlative - they should be the most remarkable places on earth.
  • Universal: Properties need to be outstanding from a global perspective. World heritage does not aim to recognise properties that are remarkable from solely a national or regional perspective. Countries are encouraged to develop other approaches to recognise these places. Australia does this through the national heritage listing process.
  • Value: What makes a property outstanding and universal is its "value", or the natural and/ or cultural worth of a property. This value is determined based on standards and processes established under the World Heritage Convention's Operational Guidelines (see whc.unesco.org/en/guidelines).

To be considered of outstanding universal value, a property needs to:

  • meet one or more of ten criteria
  • meet the conditions of integrity
  • if a cultural property, meet the conditions of authenticity, and
  • have an adequate system of protection and management to safeguard its future.

Criteria for determining Outstanding Universal Value

The criteria for outstanding universal value have evolved over time. However, the underlying concepts have remained stable.

The current criteria for world heritage properties, as specified in the World Heritage Convention, are that they:

  1. represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
  2. exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
  3. bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
  4. be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history
  5. be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change
  6. be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)
  7. contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  8. be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features
  9. be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals
  10. contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Conditions of integrity and authenticity

In addition to meeting one of the ten criteria, to be considered of outstanding universal value, a world heritage property also needs to meet conditions of integrity and for cultural properties, authenticity.

Integrity relates to the 'wholeness and intactness' of the heritage property and how it conveys the values it holds. Integrity can also relate to the size of the property (sufficient size to continue to represent the values) and to any threats affecting the property (will the values continue to exist?).

The requirement for authenticity relates only to cultural properties. Broadly, it requires an original, authentic or true cultural expression of the values of a property, in material or conceptual form, and cannot be represented by a copy or recreation.

Management of Outstanding Universal Value

All properties inscribed on the World Heritage List must have adequate protection and management mechanisms in place. How a country chooses to protect and manage its properties can vary, so long as it does so effectively.

To help meet Australia's international obligations, our world heritage-listed properties are considered to be matters of national environmental significance under our national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This means that any development or action that is likely to have a significant impact on the world heritage values of a world heritage property must be referred to the federal environment department for assessment and approval.

The World Heritage Committee can place a property on an "in danger" list if it believes the property is threatened by serious and specific dangers.

If the outstanding universal value of a listed property is destroyed, the World Heritage Committee will delete it from the World Heritage List altogether. This has happened only twice since the Convention began. It has not happened to any Australian properties.

Australia has an excellent track record managing our world heritage sites, and we are committed to ensuring their outstanding universal value is not compromised.

Statements of Outstanding Universal Value

A 'Statement of Outstanding Universal Value' is the official statement about a property that is adopted by the World Heritage Committee. The statement encapsulates why the property is considered to be of outstanding universal value - how it satisfies the criteria, the requirements of authenticity and integrity, and the protection and management requirements.

It is the key reference point for future protection and management of a property. It is also the reference point for monitoring, periodic reporting, state of conservation reporting, potential in danger listing and potential deletion from the World Heritage List.

These statements have been required since 2007. Australia has prepared 'retrospective' statements for several of its world heritage properties inscribed before 2007, which document the outstanding universal value of each property at the time of inscription. Many of these statements were adopted by the World Heritage Committee in July 2012. The remainder are expected to be considered by the Committee in 2013.

For the retrospective statement of outstanding universal value for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage property, visit http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154/ and http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/world/great-barrier-reef/values.html

The Great Barrier Reef: A case study

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed in 1981 for all four of the natural criteria specified in the World Heritage Convention - criteria (vii), (viii), (ix) and (x).

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area also meets the requirements for integrity, meaning that its natural attributes are considered to be whole and intact. That is, the property includes all elements necessary to express its outstanding universal value, is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey the property's significance and is protected from threats. The retrospective statement of outstanding universal value for the property was adopted by the World Heritage Committee in July 2012.

The world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are protected under national environmental law.

Although the Great Barrier Reef is not world heritage listed for its cultural values, indigenous cultural values are protected under Australian legislation, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

The retrospective statement of outstanding universal value acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interaction with the natural environment, illustrated by strong ongoing links with sea-country.

Protecting the Reef's Outstanding Universal Value

Managing the Reef is a complex task because of its sheer size, diversity and range of threats. It is, and always has been, a multi-use property and it is only with a coherent and functioning management system that we can protect such a large area.

In addition to the protection of world heritage values under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a matter of national environmental significance in itself. It is also protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

To ensure use of the Great Barrier Reef remains sustainable, activities in the World Heritage Area and Marine Park are tightly controlled under these laws and policies, as well as other relevant state and federal laws. For example, commercial shipping is strictly regulated including through a ship reporting system, coastal vessel tracking service, compulsory pilotage in high risk areas, navigational aids, marine pollution response plans, and designated shipping areas.

For more information on management of the Great Barrier Reef, visit www.environment.gov.au/heritage/publications/gbr/gbr-managing.html

Threats to the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet and one of its richest and most complex natural ecosystems. Like all natural ecosystems, the Reef faces a number of threats.

The Outlook Report on the Great Barrier Reef that was prepared by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in 2009 identifies climate change, declining water quality from catchment runoff, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development and impacts from fishing and poaching as the priority issues reducing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef at that time. These factors together with other pressures, such as extreme weather events and crown of thorns starfish outbreaks, also pose threats to the outstanding universal value of the world heritage property.

In order to address these threats and in response to the World Heritage Committee concerns about development on Curtis Island, the Australian and Queensland governments are undertaking a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone that will include consideration of its outstanding universal value.

For more information visit www.environment.gov.au/epbc/notices/assessments/pubs/gbr-strategic-assessment-factsheet.pdf