UNESCO Committee undemocratically calls for blocking of projects backed by Venice’s elected City Council and funded by Italy’s government

During the 40th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee in Istanbul on 14 July 2016, an ultimatum was issued to Italian authorities threatening to remove Venice from its World Heritage List and add it to its List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO has charged the Italian authorities with resolving problems it identifies as uncontrolled tourism, wave damage and the reduction in the number of residents living in the city. UNESCO highlighted three most urgent risks: the prohibition of the larger ships entering the lagoon, the imposition of speed limits on water traffic and the creation of a sustainable tourism strategy.

Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, made a statement to the Committee including the following claims:

“There is a risk: Venice seems to have lost its capacity to define its future, and can become the pray of sectorial interests, be they called mass tourism, the harbour economy, infrastructures, boat and ship traffic, the exploitation of the natural environment.”

(For full text of Bandarin’s speech click here:

Click to access 20160713-Francesco-Bandarin-Speech-UNESCO.pdf


Specifically, the UNESCO Committee called on Venice City Council to stop all projects currently underway until a package of measures is created to check tourist flows, the environment and monuments, water traffic and big ships. This includes blocking the project backed by Venice’s Mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, to dig a new channel (Tresse Nuovo) through the lagoon to divert big ships (especially cruise ships) away from the Giudecca Canal and St Mark’s basin and to navigate to the Maritime port through other channels. The current Italian government has been considering whether to approve this project. However, it was recently criticised by the Environment Ministry’s Commission which was conducting an environmental impact assessment. This Commission has called for the Tresse Nuovo channel project to be restarted. It seems likely that the demand by the UNESCO Committee to block this project and others arose after UN inspectors examined the health of the Venetian lagoon in 2015, according to this article in the local Venetian newspaper La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre;

Ultimatum Unesco: “Venezia affronti i suoi problemi entro febbraio o sarà fuori dai siti Patrimonio dell’Umanità”

Personally, I disagree with the need to dig this new Tresse Nuovo channel and favour the construction of a new port on the Lido outside the Venetian lagoon with subway train stop connected to a subway system for the whole city (as explained in this previous blog: https://dstandish.com/2015/09/24/battle-over-venice-cruise-ship-exhibition-indicative-of-wider-battle-for-the-oceans/). Indeed, a new port on the Lido has received the approval of the Environment Ministry’s Commission regarding its environmental impact assessment, although has yet to move to the stage of a fully-approved project. Whichever decision is made for Venice’s ports is a matter for the Italian government, Venice Port Authority, Venice City Council and other local institutions. What right does the UNESCO World Heritage Committee have to block projects managed by an elected City Council and assessed and funded by the Italian government? This is only the latest example of UNESCO undemocratically meddling in the affairs of the city as it has done consistently over the last 50 years.

It was UNESCO that led the international response to the November 1966 floods and facilitated the international diffusion of the Venice ‘problem’. On 3 and 4 November 1966, parts of Venice experienced water depths 1.94m (6 feet and 4.5 inches) above mean sea level and has continued to experience high floods, although not as seriously as in 1966.

Moreover, the November 1966 floods were not unique to Venice: they were much worse in many other parts of Italy. By 19 November 1966, the official final death toll from the floods across northern and central Italy was 110 people, with an additional six missing; there were no flood-related deaths in Venice’s historical centre, although at nearby Chioggia two people died from heart attacks. In Florence, 90 people died due to the onslaught of high rivers after more than a month of rain. Florence’s river Arno burst its banks. In Florence, treasured paintings from leading art galleries were washed out into the rivers, and low-lying churches and buildings filled up with water, mud and debris to heights of nearly two meters. In Venice, between 3,000 and 5,000 people were made homeless by the 1966 floods, mainly from the islands of Pellestrina and Saint’Erasmo. But limited damage to the monuments, historical buildings and artefacts that make up Venice’s heritage cannot explain the framing of Venice’s 1966 floods as an exceptional problem.

UNESCO led the international response to the 1966 floods and facilitated the international diffusion of the Venice problem, which has recently focused more on tourism than flooding. UNESCO’s impact on this problem is outlined by Howard Moore, the Director of the UNESCO Office in Venice:

“The Campaign for the Safeguarding of Venice had its origins in the immediate reaction by UNESCO to that dramatic event, when an international campaign was launched by the then Director – General of the Organization, René Maheu. In response to the appeal of Maheu, many private bodies (some fifty-nine) were set up around the world to gather funds and use them in the preservation and restoration of buildings, monuments and works of art in Venice. Even today, almost forty years on, there are well over twenty – in 11 countries – that are still active, and UNESCO, through its Office in the city and the Association of Private Committees, is pleased to play a part in their important work.” (Moore 2005, xxiii-xxiv)

By bringing together, in 1969, scientists from around the world to discuss the 1966 Venice floods, UNESCO stimulated the momentum behind the international diffusion of the Venice problem. There was some scepticism in Italy about the timing and possible outcomes of UNESCO’s intervention: it became interested in the Venice problem in the period just after the Egyptian government had capitulated to UNESCO pressure to intervene and save the temples of Abu Simbel from the Nile. “UNESCO came on the Venice scene only because it was finished at Abu Simbel, and now it would have us become a cross between a Nubian monument and Disneyland,” declared Gianni de Michelis, formerly a prominent Italian Socialist Party member (cited in Fay and Knightley 1976, 99).

Italian governments have also self-consciously raised the domestic and international profile of the Venice problem. Emilio Colombo, the Italian Prime Minister in 1971, stated that he sought “to bring the problem of Venice out of the shadows where it seems to have remained grounded until now, and set it on the way to a solution in line with Venetian, Italian, and international expectations” (cited in Fay and Knightley 1976, 61). While Italian governments did not give UNESCO extensive powers of intervention in the Venice problem, UNESCO was assigned a decision-making role through being allocated a seat on the Venice Safeguarding Commission established in 1973. The Venice Safeguarding Commission was granted the authority to advise the government on all building and territorial changes within the Venice lagoon boundary; it was a noteworthy step to invite a representative of an international body to participate in local and national policy decisions. “It was, as Italian politicians never failed to point out, a considerable concession to offer membership to a non-Italian representing an international organization,” write Fay and Knightley (1976, 95).

Subsequently, UNESCO has actively put pressure on Italian government: for example, its 1974 General Convention requested that the Italian state guarantee the safeguarding interventions for Venice in the Special Law of 1973. Pressure on Italian governments has also been exerted from 11 countries through the Association of Private Committees, which UNESCO has helped to coordinate, and which since 1997 has held a special status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in operational relations with UNESCO. Italian NGOs have also attempted to sway government policy on Venice by channeling claims through UNESCO: in 2002, environmental and other organizations in the Save Venice and its Lagoon Committee asked UNESCO to support measures against the Italian government’s plans to construct mobile dams in Venice for flood protection (Environmental News Service 2002).

UNESCO has played a decisive role in shaping the Venice problem, alongside Italian governments and NGOs from many countries. UNESCO guided the responses to the 1966 floods during the early stages of the Venice problem’s construction. Although the 1966 floods in Venice were very disruptive and sinking had accelerated, UNESCO was not simply reacting to these problems: rather, the organization was seeking a new cause, and Venice provided moral attraction that could stimulate international interest. Senior members of UNESCO self-consciously framed the safeguarding of Venice as a moral duty, as indicated in a 1973 document by the organization’s International Consultative Committee document:

“Firstly, one might observe that the participation of the international community is a moral obligation (UNESCO’s italics). If Venice really represents, in the eyes of many men and women, a vital common asset, then they must share the burden of its preservation…An enterprise of this kind can represent the ‘honour of a lifetime’…or, on the other hand, a lost opportunity. Anyone is free, of course, to leave the task to others, but those with most pride and greatest wisdom will want to say ‘I took part.’”(Cited in Fay and Knightley 1976, 96)

The members of the UNESCO International Consultative Committee appreciated that the Venice problem was not simply about responding to the 1966 flood damage. Venice is a symbol of Western patrimony, and campaigns about saving Venice combine the city’s real problems and its mythical traditions. Presenting Venice’s problems as critical and cultivating a role in saving the city thus became an opportunity to raise UNESCO’s profile. As Bandarin, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, stated to the 2016 World Heritage Committee in Istanbul:

“Venice became one of the symbols of the international cooperation for heritage conservation, a star in the UNESCO constellation of safeguarding campaigns.”

Undoubtedly, UNESCO has contributed to some important restoration projects in Venice. Even though the Venice problem is a key campaign for UNESCO, this should not justify undermining local projects run by democratically elected bodies including Venice City Council or Italian governments.


Environmental News Service. 2002. “UNESCO Asked to Save Venice and Lagoon from Dikes.” November 14. Accessed November 30, 2010. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/nov2002/2002-11-14-01.asp

Fay, Stephen and Phillip Knightley. 1976. The Death of Venice. London: Andre Deutsch.

Fletcher, Caroline and Tom Spencer, eds. 2005. Flooding and Environmental Challenges for Venice and its Lagoon: State of Knowledge. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Howard. 2005. “Collaboration between the worlds of science and culture.” Preface to Flooding and Environmental Challenges for Venice and its Lagoon: State of Knowledge, edited by Caroline Fletcher and Tom Spencer, xxiii-xxiv. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

4 Responses to “UNESCO Committee undemocratically calls for blocking of projects backed by Venice’s elected City Council and funded by Italy’s government”
  1. Tim Detwiler says:

    If I have read this correctly, UNESCO only has the power to delist, or relabel Venice as a world heritage site to an endangered one. Does this step really stop the democratic process of the city’s self determination? Is not UNESCO just another type of international political action committee that actively lobbies for their point of view?

    • Dominic Standish says:

      Interesting observations, thanks, Tim. I agree that UNESCO cannot directly stop the city or the government making these decisions. Nevertheless, by issuing this ultimatum UNESCO undoubtably puts pressure on the government committees which make the final decisions. In that sense, UNESCO is undermining the spirit of democracy in my opinion

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] It would be more rational to focus on constructing a terminal outside the lagoon immediately. Until this terminal is ready, cruise ships should continue navigating through central Venice and docking at the Maritime Port. Yet UNESCO has proposed putting Venice on its list of endangered sites if cruise ships continue to navigate through the lagoon. “A long-term solution is urgently needed,’’ said UNESCO. “A solution that will prevent total access to the lagoon, redirecting them to more suitable ports in the area.’’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/21/venice-may-be-put-on-endangered-list-if-cruise-ships-not-banned-says-unesco) UNESCO will discuss whether to include Venice on its endangered list at its plenary session between July 16-31 and the UN organisation has a long history of undemocratically meddling in Venetian affairs: https://dstandish.com/2016/07/15/unesco-committee-undemocratically-calls-for-blocking-of-projects-ba… […]

  2. […] So why has Draghi’s government cabinet decided on a short-term ban which will negatively impact so many Venetians? Because this decision came three days before UNESCO is set to discuss cruise ships as a threat to Venice and this unelected government cares more about its international reputation than Venetians. UNESCO has proposed putting Venice on its list of endangered sites if cruise ships continue to navigate through the lagoon. “A long-term solution is urgently needed,’’ said UNESCO. “A solution that will prevent total access to the lagoon, redirecting them to more suitable ports in the area.’’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/21/venice-may-be-put-on-endangered-list-if-cruise-ships-not-banned-says-unesco) UNESCO will discuss whether to include Venice on its endangered list at its plenary session between July 16-31 and welcomed the decree banning cruise ships from the centre of Venice. “Italy’s decision to ban the access of large cruise ships to the Venice Lagoon as of 1 August 2021 is a very good news and an important step that significantly contributes to the safeguarding of this unique heritage site. #Venice,” tweeted UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay (https://www.ansa.it/english/news/lifestyle/arts/2021/07/14/unesco-hails-venice-cruise-ship-ban_733dbc06-7483-4a8b-869b-788dea40ce0e.html). UNESCO has a long history of undemocratically meddling in Venetian affairs: (https://dstandish.com/2016/07/15/unesco-committee-undemocratically-calls-for-blocking-of-projects-ba&#8230😉 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Banner Image

    The banner image displayed at the top of each page on this website is adapted from the painting 'Ancient and Modern' by Patrick Hughes. I would like to thank him for generously offering this painting for use on this website.
%d bloggers like this: