Saving World Treasures

JAPAN'S feudal-era castle in Himeji, with its sweeping winged roof lines, white towers and plastered walls, exudes such bird-like grace that it is known as the ``white heron.''

Already a recognized treasure in Japan, Himeji-Jo (castle) has now been inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. At a recent meeting of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Cartagena, Colombia, 29 cultural sites and four natural ones were added to the 20-year-old list of 378 sites of ``unique and universal value'' in 86 countries.

New ``treasures'' on the list include the Mexican colonial-style jewel of Zacatecas; the painted-exterior churches of Moldavia, Romania; the imperial city of Hue, Vietnam; the pre-Hispanic archaeological digs in Joya de Ceren, El Salvador; El Vizcaino marine-life refuge in Baja California; and Japan's Yakushima evergreen forest park.

Japan is a newcomer to the listing, which aims to preserve and highlight mankind's common heritage. For UNESCO Director General Frederico Mayor, emphasizing ``mankind's common patrimony'' is especially important at a time of rising nationalism and interethnic conflicts - conflicts that increasingly target the symbols of mankind's common culture.

At a ceremony in the UNESCO headquarters here last month, Dr. Mayor singled out recent examples of purposeful destruction of historic sites, saying ``the destruction of these symbols is not an accident of war,'' but an intentional act to ``annihilate the culture that represents the peoples.'' If peoples' memory, represented by such common patrimony as a famous old bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, can be destroyed, he added, then a common identity and ``the hope of coexistence'' can be destroyed with it. Mostar's graceful rock bridge fell earlier this year after relentless pounding by Serbian gunners.

``Safeguarding identity is our great responsibility and our great challenge,'' Mayor said.

To help in that task, Mayor noted that UNESCO's fledgling World Heritage Center, which coordinates the international organization's preservation activities, has been improved so it can undertake ``emergency interventions,'' as UNESCO did last year during the bombing of the historic Adriatic port city of Dubrovnik.

The aim is for the center's work to be ``faster and more professional'' in such urgent cases. At the Cartagena meeting, a fund of more than $1 million was established for emergency repairs to monuments damaged by acts of man or nature.

The United States is the single largest contributor to the 136-nation convention backing the World Heritage List - and has 18 of the list's sites - even though the US withdrew from UNESCO in 1986 over concerns about the organization's financing and political slant.

Satisfaction with initiatives like the World Heritage List, specifically, and more generally with the organization's direction since Mayor took over in 1987, however, could lead the US to rejoin UNESCO this year.

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