The United Nations’ cultural agency, Unesco, has added the historic center of Ukraine’s city of Odesa to its World Heritage List, describing it as “the duty of all humanity” to protect it.
The status, awarded by a Unesco panel meeting in Paris on Wednesday, is designed to help protect the port city’s cultural heritage, which has been under threat since Russia’s invasion.
“As the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always risen from the heartbreak of the world, is preserved from further destruction,” Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
The world heritage committee’s 21 member states approved the designation with six votes in favour, one against and 14 abstentions.
Russia repeatedly tried to delay the vote and denounced the eventual decision, saying the only threat to Odesa came from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who requested the listing in October to shield the city from Russian bombardment, welcomed the decision.
“I’m grateful to partners who help protect our pearl from the Russian invaders’ attacks,” he tweeted on Wednesday. Odesa is often described as Ukraine’s “pearl of the Black Sea.”
Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rushed to try to protect the city’s monuments and buildings with sandbags and barricades.
The city was also added to the list of world heritage sites in danger, which Unesco says “gives it access to reinforced technical and financial international assistance” to protect or, if necessary, rehabilitate it.
The agency added that it had already helped with repairs on the Odesa museum of fine arts and the Odesa museum of modern art after damage incurred since the beginning of the war.
Odesa blossomed after Russian Empress Catherine the Great decreed in the late 18th century that it would be the country’s modern maritime gateway.
Its location on the shores of the Black Sea allowed it to become one of the most important ports in the Russian empire but the extent of Russian cultural influence on the city is a contentious topic.
A draft decision ahead of the Unesco vote described Empress Catherine II as having “founded” the city, prompting criticism from Ukraine, objecting to what it viewed as a “politicised” description of the city.
Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and Odesa mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, in an open letter seen by Agence France-Presse, contested this, saying the city thrived long before the Russian empress’ arrival.
“The continuous development of Odesa as a port city dates back to the 15th century,” they said, and was known as Hadzhybei.
In Moscow, Russia’s foreign ministry accused a group of western countries of pushing through what it called a “politically motivated” decision in violation of standard procedures.
“It was prepared hastily, without respecting the current high standards of Unesco,” the foreign ministry said, stressing that just six countries voted in favor.
Moscow pointed to “the glorious historical past of Odesa as part of the Russian state” and insisted that “the only threat” Odesa faced was from “the nationalist regime in Ukraine” which has taken down a number of monuments in the city.
In December, Ukrainian authorities in Odesa pulled down a statue of Catherine II as part of its efforts to de-Russify the city, after polling residents on what to do with it.
Six other Ukrainian sites have already been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List, including the Saint-Sophia Cathedral in the capital Kyiv and the historic center of the western city of Lviv.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.