The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's vote to list Hebron's Old City, home to the shrine regarded as the burial place of Abraham, as an endangered Palestinian world heritage site has predictably stirred controversy. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu quoted from scriptures to paint the Jewish connection to the site, located on the West Bank and known to Muslims as the home of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Calling the Unesco decision "delusional", he has irresponsibly ordered another cut in the amount of money Israel should be contributing to the UN budget.
The Unesco move also puts Hebron on its "in danger" list, which is designed to alert the international community and facilitate access to immediate World Heritage Fund assistance. Hebron's Old City site now becomes subject to annual inspections by Unesco, possibly one reason for Mr Netanyahu's ire, since settlers from the Jewish state live there under heavy guard among thousands of Palestinians. Such are the sad realities of the Middle East situation that even world heritage is a source of open discord.
The raw nerves that issues of sovereignty tend to touch mean that the conservation of cultural heritage might well be a doomed task when the challenge is beyond the means of some countries, while others choose to sulk instead of lending a hand. Sites of natural beauty and universal value in particular deserve joint action to protect them from the ravages of unfettered human activity. In January, the journal Biological Conservation found that more than 100 protected sites around the globe are "rapidly deteriorating and are more threatened than previously thought". These include some of the most beautiful places on Earth, such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and the Galapagos Islands which hold a vast number of species which have been described as nature's crown jewels.
While many of the heritage sites indeed are also tourist spots, human intrusion alone cannot be blamed for every case of blight. Climate change is a factor as well.
Sites of natural beauty are the God-given equivalent of created visions such as the Taj Mahal or Borobudur. With the exception of Brunei and Timor Leste, all the other South-east Asian nations have at least one world heritage site each. Thirteen of the 37 heritage sites in the region were picked solely on the basis of their natural heritage. Worryingly, Asian sites are among those faring the worst and one, the Sumatran tropical rainforest, has already been classified as "endangered". This is a pity. Leaders in Asean countries, and beyond, need to galvanise support from across the public and private sectors to work towards preserving natural and man-made wonders so that future generations will not be deprived of their beauty.