Australia's World Heritage properties are internationally recognised for their Outstanding Universal Value. This page explains what this means.
World Heritage listing
World Heritage properties are places that are important to, and belong to, everyone in the world, regardless of where they are located. They are an irreplaceable legacy that the global community has decided to protect for the future. There are over 1000 properties on the World Heritage List. Australia has 20 properties on the World Heritage List, which means that those properties are recognised by the global community as having special significance that needs to be protected for future generations. 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 one of the central ideas underpinning the World Heritage Convention. Broadly, its meaning follows the common sense interpretation of each word:
- 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 only from a national or regional perspective. Countries are encouraged to develop other approaches to recognise these places. Australia does this through its National Heritage List.
- 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 set out in the World Heritage Operational 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 assessing Outstanding Universal Value
The criteria for assessing Outstanding Universal Value have evolved over time. However, the underlying concepts have remained stable.
The current criteria for assessing whether nominated properties are of Outstanding Universal Value, as specified in the World Heritage Operational Guidelines, are that they:
- represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
- 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
- bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
- be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history
- 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
- 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)
- contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
- 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
- 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
- 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
To be considered of Outstanding Universal Value, in addition to meeting one of the ten criteria, a nominated property must 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 properties are considered to be matters of national environmental significance under our national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). 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 Australian Government environment department for assessment and approval.
Under the EPBC Act, world heritage values of a property are the natural heritage and cultural heritage contained in the property. Cultural heritage and natural heritage of Outstanding Universal Value are defined in Articles 1 and 2 of the World Heritage Convention.
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 World Heritage property is destroyed, the World Heritage Committee will remove it from the World Heritage List altogether. This has happened only twice since the World Heritage Convention began. It has not happened to any Australian properties.
Australia has an excellent track record managing our World Heritage properties, 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 a brief summary of why a World Heritage property is considered to be of international importance - its Outstanding Universal Value. It is the official statement adopted by the World Heritage Committee at the time a property is included on the World Heritage List.
Statements of Outstanding Universal Value are intended to be succinct but must include:
- a summary of why the property was included on the World Heritage List
- information on how the property meets the World Heritage criteria for which it has been listed - including examples of key attributes that contribute to the property’s Outstanding Universal Value
- a statement of the property’s condition at the time of listing (referred to as ‘integrity’ for all properties and also ‘authenticity’ for cultural properties), and
- requirements for its protection and management.
Statements of Outstanding Universal Value for Australia’s World Heritage properties are written by the Australian Government in consultation with the relevant state or territory government and submitted for approval to the World Heritage Committee. Changes to Statements of Outstanding Universal Value require agreement from the Committee.
Statements of Outstanding Universal Value may not document all attributes protected by World Heritage listing. This is because attributes may be too numerous to list individually, or were identified after the property was inscribed on the World Heritage List. For a natural property, new species may be discovered or their conservation status may change. For a cultural property, new archaeological sites may be discovered or existing sites may yield new information.
Attributes that contribute to the Outstanding Universal Value for which the property is included on the World Heritage List are considered to contribute to the property’s “world heritage values” under the EPBC Act. For some World Heritage properties not all of the attributes that contribute to the property’s Outstanding Universal Value or world heritage values are specifically mentioned or itemised in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value. This can be due to space limitations, the large number of species at a particular property, or where attributes are referred to in broader descriptive terms (for example “waterbirds” rather than mention of each individual species of waterbird).
Further information about the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties
Further information about the Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage property can be found in a number of source documents — for example, the property’s original World Heritage nomination or renomination documents, requests for minor boundary modifications, management plan, and evaluations by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and/or the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (two of the Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committee). Most nomination and evaluation documents are available from the World Heritage Centre website. Management plans are available from the Australian Government and/or relevant state government web pages.
Information on what might constitute a significant impact on a World Heritage property under the EPBC Act can be found in the publication Significant Impact Guidelines 1.1 – Matters of National Environmental Significance.
Further information on preparing Statements of Outstanding Universal Value
Information about preparing Statements of Outstanding Universal Value is available from the following sources: