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Reviewed by:
  • World Heritage and Human Rights: Lessons from the Asia-Pacific and Global Arena ed. by Peter Bille Larsen
  • Michael Herzfeld
World Heritage and Human Rights: Lessons from the Asia-Pacific and Global Arena. Edited by Peter Bille Larsen. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. xxii + 325 pp., 26 figures, 2 tables. Paperback US $43, ISBN 978-1-13822-422-3; Hardback US $124, ISBN 978-1-13822-421-6; E-book $27, ISBN 978-1-31540-278-9.

Heritage and rights, ethical domains that sometimes overlap like Venn circles, also often erupt into discord, pitting local cultural values against a universalism born of colonial domination and still embedded in the lofty presumptions of what UNESCO recognizes as “Outstanding Universal Value.” Regional (Asia-Pacific) coverage is necessarily uneven both because the record is itself highly variable and because authors are treading on political eggshells. That much is clear from the nine case studies and five legal reviews laid out in this cautiously optimistic volume. Amid multiple contradictions in legal writ and practice, several important common themes emerge. Consent, participation, and prosperity, along with a near-worldwide commitment to according dignity to all, loom large as rights, including the right to heritage, but also the right to ask, “Whose heritage?” Ownership itself is a conceptual quagmire for socialist societies or where land and material objects are not culturally viewed as individual property.

Micro-histories of struggles for recognition challenge the triumphalism of national and international heritage regimes. Larsen argues that the UNESCO World Heritage program’s “original sin” (p. 7) is reflected in the absence of people from narratives of success; Alexander H. E. Morawa and Gabriel Zalazar call for “cross-referencing” (p. 198), allowing local groups and the international bureaucracy to learn from each other. As Larsen suggests (p. 16), “vague win-win language” can mask a variety of damaging concessions to economic [End Page 487] power and cultural insensitivity. The ethnographic methods he and Kristal Buckley advocate can only partially redress this imbalance, given the capacity of the powerful to camouflage their actions. Some significant breaches have nevertheless now broken the silence of complicity among states, corporations, religious authorities, and international organizations, as in the recognition (reported by Jonathan Liljeblad) of fragile, unofficial, Hindu-derived rituals performed by self-professed Buddhists in Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia (pp. 74–76); danger still lurks with the prospect of World Heritage listing, which threatens these highly localized religious practices with official reabsorption as “culture.”

Human rights demand a shift of focus from the inaccessibly abstract and universalist to the fragile and specific. Law, while rhetorically abstract and generic, in practice is always case-specific. The language of “community” may nevertheless still mask internal inequality and intrusive exploitation. While the contrast drawn by Amran Hamzah (p. 115) between “Western” and “indigenous” understandings of good governance reproduces a dichotomy redolent of such official thinking, he is right to insist on the intellectual capabilities and knowledge of local actors. Binaries, by contrast, tend to support nationalist and regionalist generalizations. Thus, the Vietnamese instrumentalization of “Asian values,” as Larsen shows (p. 185), does not automatically entail respect for local values, although official acceptance of activists’ calls for remedial action is encouraging. Elsewhere, as Buckley, Ian Lilley, and Helena Kajlich demonstrate for Australia (against the complex legal background usefully detailed by Ben Boer and Stefan Gruber), it has not been easy to establish respect for indigenous negotiation methods and concepts of collective identity. Moreover, as Anne Laura Kraak demonstrates for Bagan, internal differentiation also requires attention; local factionalism and class hierarchy may filter policy impact. The case of Vigan (described by Sara Dürr, Malot Ingel, and Bettina Beer), for example, shows that anti-poverty policies work selectively, their trajectories overdetermined by the influence of unequally distributed wealth and power. Bipin Adhikari’s historical and legal survey of Nepal’s evolving heritage policies shows why, before democratization, one dominant area— the Kathmandu Valley, itself an area where “social complexity” today impacts heritage conservation efforts (Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, Pranita Shrestha, and Hans Christie Bjønness, p. 147)—received almost exclusive attention.

Overly generic policies often spring from convenient assumptions, as when Southeast Asian officials treat swidden agriculturalist...


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