UNESCO chides Australia over Great Barrier Reef proposal

BEIJING — (AP) — The Chinese host of this year's meeting of the U.N. World Heritage Committee has defended the body's proposal to label the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” against Australian government suspicion that China influenced the finding for political reasons.

The committee, which is meeting both virtually and in the Chinese city of Fuzhou for the next two weeks, will consider the draft decision on Friday.

“Australia, as a member state of the World Heritage Committee, should ... attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and earnestly fulfill the duty of World Heritage protection instead of making groundless accusations against other states,” said Tian Xuejun, the Chinese vice minister of education and the president of this year's session, on Sunday.

The UNESCO committee will consider adding new sites to the World Heritage list, taking some off and adding others to the in-danger category. A draft decision to put Venice on the in-danger list prompted the Italian government to ban cruise ships from the lagoon city in a bid to avoid the designation.

Tian, speaking at the first news conference since the meetings opened last Friday, said the Great Barrier Reef proposal was based on data from Australia and recommendations from an advisory body.

Australian Environment Minister Susan Ley, who is in Europe lobbying UNESCO delegates against supporting the in-danger listing, did not immediately comment on the Chinese criticism.

She had held “constructive and cordial discussions” with China's Ambassador to UNESCO Yang Jin, the minister's office said in a statement on Monday.

“The government looks forward to working with China and all members of the World Heritage Committee in discussions on the draft listing later this week,” the statement said.

Her office also released a report by the government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science that indicated widespread recovery of the reef's coral. Monitoring by the institute found coral cover had increased during the respite from severe weather over the last year.

“The release of the full report underlines our view that the World Heritage Committee proposed listing had not been based on the latest information,” Ley said.

Australia reacted angrily when the draft was released last month.

“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” Ley said, without mentioning China by name.

Relations between the two nations have soured in recent years, with Australia blocking Chinese technology and investment in key infrastructure, and China using tariffs and other measures to reduce its imports from Australia.

Australia was warned in 2014 that an in-danger listing was being considered for the Great Barrier Reef, which was designated a world heritage site in 1981.

The draft decision said that Australia's long-term plan for the reef, a network of 2,500 reefs covering 348,000 square kilometers (134,000 square miles), “requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change.”

“We acknowledge very much the work which has been done in Australia, but our text in the draft decision ... is a proposal for putting the site on the list of world heritage in danger because of the threats which were identified,” said Mechtild Roessler, the UNESCO director of the World Heritage Committee.

Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, the assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, said that an in-danger listing should be viewed as a collective call for action from all the member states.

“It’s something that should be seen as something positive and not, as what we heard from some of the authorities in other countries, as a punishment,” he said, joining the news conference from Paris. “It’s how we preserve our heritage for future generations."