UNESCO reopens 'Memory of the World' register

France. Since 2017, the UNESCO “Memory of the World” register had not received any new registration. Following a lengthy review of this program devoted to the protection and dissemination of documentary heritage (textual, sound and audiovisual archives), the list of archives registered in the world register has been extended by sixty-four new registrations on May 24th. The tapestry of the Apocalypse of the castle of Angers [voir ill.]an original edition of Trials de Montaigne preserved in Bordeaux, the archives of the NGO ATD Quart-Monde, the register of people in slavery in the French colonies and the film Holocaust of Claude Lanzmann are the French documents which join the register.

This heterogeneous list – both in terms of eras, fields and media it brings together – is like the register created in 1992: a broad view of documentary heritage, which identifies archives representative of a period, a place, or of a community, while taking on a unique and irreplaceable character that gives them global significance. It also illustrates the tension between iconic heritage assets, subject to careful conservation, and lesser-known archives, potentially in danger. It is moreover for the latter that the register was born, created in response to the double observation of the fragility of the media (papers, films, etc.) and the lack of accessibility of the archives.

The organization of the program is based on national committees, responsible for selecting representative documents in their country, but also for promoting access to the archives. The International Advisory Committee, which meets every two years, is not made up of delegates from Member States – as for the World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage Committees – but of fourteen experts appointed by the Director General of the Unesco. Another difference with the two flagship lists of Unesco: “Memory of the World” is not based on a convention ratified by the States. The program is guided by guiding principles, and the statutes of its international committee which have been recently revised.

Confirmed in 2017, during the last meeting of the International Advisory Committee, the need for an amendment to the principles of the program stems in particular from the diplomatic tensions that it may have triggered. In 2015, Japan proposed to register a set of letters and writings of air force pilots of the Second World War. China is offended to see the archives of Japanese suicide bombers on the threshold of recognition by Unesco, evoking a “attempt to embellish Japan’s history of militaristic aggression”. Beijing responded immediately, proposing in turn to register the archives relating to the Nanjing massacre, a massive massacre of civilians perpetrated by the Japanese army in 1937, rekindling tensions between the two states. At the 2017 International Advisory Committee meeting in Paris, Member States call on the governance of the program “to respect the principles of dialogue, understanding and mutual respect, and to avoid any additional political tension concerning the “Memory of the World” programme”.

Led by working groups formed by the national committees (China and Japan were united in group IV), the revision aims to provide a “more appropriate” legal framework, with the aim of relaunching the registration process, frozen since 2017. This work culminates in 2021 in a “weak balance” (according to the final summary report of the program review), deemed sufficient by the working groups who wished to resume the course of the registration process as soon as possible. The revised version of the guiding principles only slightly changes the governance of the program, and regulates the contestation of a proposal from one State by another State. The working groups considering listings resulting in diplomatic disputes as “minorities”, they have not been the subject of a specific legal point. But there is no convention for the archival heritage: the working groups considered that the statutes of the International Advisory Committee and the guiding principles formed a satisfactory legal basis.

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