By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Suwit says move against World Heritage Committee was to protect Thailand's sovereignty; exit won't affect ICJ ruling, but status of 3 new sites now in doubt
Thailand is likely to lose, rather than gain, from its decision to withdraw from the 1972 World Heritage Convention simply to express its disagreement with the World Heritage inscription of Cambodia's Preah Vihear Temple.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti, who returned from Paris yesterday after withdrawing from the 35th session of World Heritage Committee, defended his decision by saying it was made to protect Thailand's sovereignty over the territory adjacent to Preah Vihear.
"It's too risky for us to accept the Preah Vihear management plan, which asks Unesco and the committee to dispatch experts for reparation and restoration of the temple of Preah Vihear," he said.
"It's good for us to denounce the convention, as Cambodia will not be able to use the World Heritage Committee's decision as evidence to back up its arguments in the world court."
The decision seems to reflect Thailand's worries over the consequences of Cambodia's request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that it clarify its 1962 ruling in the Preah Vihear case.
Bangkok is concerned that any Thai acknowledgement of World Heritage activities related to Preah Vihear would be equivalent to acceptance of Phnom Penh's sovereignty over the temple and its vicinity.
The international court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear was in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia, but Thailand argued that the temple's surrounding area, and even the piece of land where the sandstone temple sits, belonged to Thailand.
However, legal experts are doubtful whether Thailand's withdrawal has any legal implications for the ICJ's judgement. Decisions of the World Heritage Committee are not linked to the processes of the ICJ, a Foreign Ministry official said.
Furthermore, the World Heritage Convention says "the inclusion of a property situated in a territory, sovereignty or jurisdiction which is claimed by more than one state shall in no way prejudice the rights of the parties to the dispute".
Whether or not Thailand accepted the inscription and the management plan for Preah Vihear, that decision has no legal implications for Thailand's rights, if any, over the territory in question.
On the contrary, its denunciation of the World Heritage Convention will lead to the lost opportunity to list three Thai properties as World Heritage sites.
Thailand, which has accepted the convention since 1987, has five World Heritage sites and three more are on the tentative list. They are Phimai, Cultural Route and Associated Temples of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam (2004), Phu Phrabat Historical Park (2004) and Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (2011). Suwit said the withdrawal would not affect the five sites already listed, but he didn't mind if Thailand lost its chance to propose new sites.
"I choose national sovereignty over the Preah Vihear area, rather than the chance to list the other sites," he said. "We don't need the inscription because most of those sites are already well known among tourists."
He added that Thailand never received financial assistance from a World Heritage inscription.
While money might not be a concern for Thailand, international credibility is important for the country.
Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, expressed her deep regret after Suwit's declaration of Thailand's intention to denounce the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
"The decision of the World Heritage Committee on the Temple of Preah Vihear World Heritage site in Cambodia only reaffirms the need to ensure the protection and conservation of the property from any damage," she said in a statement.
Perhaps, she said, the Thai delegation circulated false information during last week's meeting blaming the World Heritage Committee and Unesco, when Unesco's World Heritage Centre had never pushed for a discussion of the management plan.
"Contrary to widely circulated media reports, the World Heritage Committee did not discuss the management plan of the Temple of Preah Vihear, nor did it request any reports to be submitted on its state of conservation," she said.
In the World Heritage Committee meeting at the weekend, Suwit slammed the committee and Unesco. He announced Thailand's intention to denounce the 1972 convention and walked out.
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who led his country's delegation to the meeting, said that by making such an intemperate statement and acting in such an ill-mannered fashion, by walking away from an ongoing session, the Thai delegation showed real contempt for Unesco, the World Heritage Committee and all the 186 states that were parties to the convention in 1972.
"These actions by the Thai delegation also reflect on the image of the current caretaker government in Bangkok and on the ruling party," he said.
Bokova urged Thailand to consider carefully its future course of action in respect of the important convention and to continue to be an active participant in international cooperation for the protection of the world's outstanding heritage sites.
In technical terms, Suwit's decision has not yet become effective. Thailand needs to submit its denunciation in writing to Unesco's director-general and the action will take effect 12 months after official notice has been received.
In a letter to Bokova on June 25, Suwit said Thailand was willing to denounce the 1972 convention in accordance with Article 35 of the convention.
"The instrument of denunciation will be forwarded to you [the director-general] in due course," he said in the letter, a copy of which has been seen by The Nation.