UNESCO Criticizes Albania's Butrint National Park Report, Ignoring Key Issues

 Albania released its report on Butrint National Park this Monday, set to be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in India in July of this year. The 170-page report from the Albanian Ministry of Economy, Culture, and Innovation sidesteps some of the strong criticisms from the UNESCO-ICOMOS mission.

Butrint National Park Report
  Butrint National Park Report
In the monitoring report submitted to Albanian authorities in September 2023, the UNESCO mission expressed "deep concern" about the alteration of Butrint National Park's boundaries by the Albanian government, involving the removal of 600 hectares without UNESCO's knowledge and approval.

However, official documents obtained by Voice of America reveal that 802 hectares have been removed from Butrint National Park, reducing its total area from 9424 hectares to 8622 hectares.

The Albanian government's decision in January 2022 to redefine Butrint's boundaries and its subsequent decision a month later to build a resort in the area removed from the National Park are not mentioned in any section of the Albanian government's report.

Additionally, the Albanian side's report does not provide concrete responses to UNESCO's criticisms regarding the new management model for the ancient city of Butrint, known as Zone A-3, through a non-profit organization (Foundation) established by the Albanian Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Albanian-American Development Foundation (AADF).

In the 2023 report, UNESCO's mission states that the management solely of Zone A-3, covering approximately 614.3 hectares, does not fulfill UNESCO's requirements for an integrated management of Butrint, which should combine archaeology, monuments, and the natural environment.

UNESCO's mission has also demanded that the Ministry of Culture retains the "state party" authority for Butrint, where the organization seeks state responsibilities in line with global standards established by UNESCO.

"The agreements between the Ministry of Culture, AADF, and the new Foundation do not provide an appropriate solution, as they are not responsible for managing the World Heritage property as such," states the mission.

The Albanian side responds to UNESCO, stating that the Butrint Management Foundation, in coordination with the Ministry of Economy, Culture, and Innovation, will adjust the Action Plan and work towards an agreement where the Ministry of Culture has comprehensive oversight authority for Butrint and responsibility to the World Heritage Committee.

In reality, the Ministry of Culture has no room for a new agreement, as the current agreement for the creation of the new Foundation has a 10-year term. Moreover, the Ministry of Culture does not have a majority on the Butrint Management Foundation Board, the highest decision-making body.

The Foundation's Board consists of five members, chaired by the minister responsible for culture, two representatives of the Albanian-American Development Foundation, the director of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage, and an international expert.

The Albanian side's report seems to fall short in addressing some of the requirements presented by the World Heritage Center to Albanian authorities through a letter sent by the Albanian ambassador to UNESCO, Besiana Kadare, in October of the previous year.

While UNESCO has requested "information from Albania on measures for the protection and integrated management of the property and its buffer zone," Albanian authorities seem not to have prepared this plan to submit to the World Heritage Committee.

"The work initiated is being followed up with technical meetings aimed at preparing a detailed short-term and long-term action plan for implementing UNESCO-ICOMOS recommendations," the Albanian side states in its report.

Another UNESCO request concerns "detailed explanations and a clear and accurate map showing the boundaries of the property and its buffer zone, as approved by the World Heritage Committee in 2007."

This map has not yet been prepared by Albanian authorities and is not included in the report.

"The Butrint Management Foundation will prepare a detailed and accurate map, in collaboration and under the supervision of the Ministry of Tourism and Environment and the Ministry of Economy, Culture, and Innovation," the report states.

However, this contradicts the responsibilities of the Butrint Management Foundation, which, according to the law approved by the Albanian parliament, has the administration and mandate to act only in Zone A-3 of the Park, covering about 614.3 hectares, not for the entire Butrint National Park, which is currently 8622 hectares.

Developments regarding the Butrint National Park boundaries have been criticized by the recent UNESCO mission, as they also contradict the recommendations of the Butrint Management Plan approved by the Albanian government in 2020.

The management plan proposed only a review of the boundaries ranging from 50 to 150 hectares, encompassing the construction zone of Ksamil and the creation of a green belt to curb further construction. It did not propose the removal of 802 hectares from the National Park.

Voice of America verified the current map of Butrint National Park in the Albanian state geospatial system, showing the boundary changes and the coastal zone beyond the Butrint National Park, from the Çuka Channel to the southern coastal area of Ksamil.

The Albanian side's report to the World Heritage Committee regarding Butrint does not mention any facts about the developments in the Constitutional Court of Albania.

A group of 36 opposition deputies has requested that the Constitutional Court declare unconstitutional the law on the administration of Butrint National Park.

Representatives of the Albanian government did not present the UNESCO report during the plenary session in November of the previous year at the Constitutional Court, even though the report had been submitted to the National Institute of Cultural Heritage since September of the previous year. The report was not made public by UNESCO as the Albanian side did not give consent.

In an unusual move, in January of this year, the Constitutional Court changed its procedures, requesting the government to submit the UNESCO report and reopening the plenary session for Butrint.

The new Minister of Culture and Economy, Blendi Gonxhe, did not sign the transfer of the Park to the new Foundation, which, according to the law approved by the Parliament, was to be completed by February 14 of this year.

Mr. Gonxhe, through a social media post, stated that he "wanted to ensure public attention to the maximum for the proper administration of the challenging process of changing the management model of Butrint National Park, in full compliance with international standards and the current Albanian legal framework."

Ina Zhupa, a deputy of the Democratic Party who led the initiative of opposition deputies at the Constitutional Court, has declared that the battle for Butrint is a battle for Albanian identity, history, and heritage.
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