The ex-ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires is among more than 50 world sites vying for inclusion on the UN's coveted heritage list at a meeting opening in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
Known today as the ‘Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights’ or ‘Museo Sitio de Memoria Esma’ (a misnomer, given that name refers to just part of the complex), the sprawling 17-hectare site in the Núñez neighbourhood served as a clandestine detention, torture and extermination camp during Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
During the era of state terrorism, more than 5,000 people were detained, tortured and killed there on the orders of the military junta.
First submitted for potential inclusion in 2017, the ex-ESMA is now just one step away from making the list.
UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation, keeps the world heritage list, which it says is a reflection of the planet's cultural and natural diversity. It currently recognises more than 900 cultural, 200 natural, and 40 mixed sites.
Members of UNESCO will meet in Riyadh to discuss a number of issues, including the ascension and potential relegation of sites included on its prestigious list.
There are medieval mosques, part of the Silk Road, the Mayan archaeological site of Tak'alik Ab'aj in Guatemala, and more on the list of potential inclusions. In the next two weeks, 53 candidates will learn whether they have been selected for the World Heritage List.
Some of the 50 candidates – a significant number since the 2022 session scheduled in Russia was not held due to its invasion of Ukraine – are little known or less than heritage gems such as the Alhambra in Granada or the Great Wall of China.
This year's edition will be marked by a possible strong entry of memorial sites that were little represented until now: alongside Argentina’s submission, Rwanda has proposed four locations linked to the genocide. France and Belgium have filed locations from World War I.
President Alberto Fernández is among those campaigning for recognition for the ex-ESMA.
"Preserving these sites so that the collective memory is sustained is very important. The world cannot go back and cannot admit that events like those experienced at ESMA can happen again," the Argentine head of state said last year while on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
The inscriptions provide "recognition" for countries, since they indicate that their sites "are important and contributed to the development of our humanity," said Lazare Eloundou, director of World Heritage at UNESCO.
Guatemala has nominated its national archaeological park Tak'alik Ab'aj, whose recognition would be, according to authorities, "significant and important for all Guatemalans and indigenous peoples."
Cambodia, for its part, proposed Koh Ker, a short-lived Khmer capital in the 10th century in the north of the current country and whose temples and sanctuaries are partially covered and hidden by the vegetation of its thick jungle.
Turkey seeks recognition for its medieval mosques, France defends its famous Roman temple in Nîmes, known as the "Maison Carrée", and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan jointly promote the section of the Silk Road in their countries.
However, World Heritage recognition does not provide full protection for the sites. Fifty-five are considered "in danger" and six could join them during the upcoming meeting.
The most famous of them is Venice, since the Serenissima – registered in 1987 along with its lagoon on the World Heritage list – is threatened by the "rise of the water" and tourist overcrowding, says Eloundou.
UNESCO also wants to inscribe the Saint Sophia Cathedral and monastic buildings in Kyiv, as well as the historic centre of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on its list of endangered sites.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, "these sites are threatened with destruction. There were attacks on the buffer zones of these sites and we do not know what will happen in the future," lamented the director of World Heritage.
Following the previous verdict of the experts, it is now up to the members of UNESCO meeting in the World Heritage Committee to decide whether to follow the recommendations or if they make the candidates wait again in the prelude to the reputed list.
The World Heritage Committee meeting ends on September 25.