UNESCO is Fighting a Different Kind of Culture War

In war, there are casualties. Beyond the obvious human toll of people killed, injured and displaced, increasingly cultural heritage is also coming under attack. While historical building, monuments, artifacts and artwork is always at risk in conflict, recent actions by extremist groups such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine in Mali highlight the difficult position international organizations are in to protect cultural heritage as war rages on. But with renewed attention comes new strategies to protect cultural heritage and help ensure that future generations will have access to the past.

The risk to cultural heritage in conflict has long been recognized. Following World War II, the Nuremberg Tribunal included the plundering of public or private property and the wanton destruction of cities and towns as war crimes. The devastation experienced by Europe, North Africa and East Asia during the war led to the creation of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict in 1954, which is just one of several international treaties established to protect cultural heritage in war. However more than 60 years later, only 126 states have ratified the treaty and enforcement mechanisms to prevent or deter destruction remain limited.

Beyond wanton or intentional destruction, there is also the problem of looting.

This can range from the seizure of personal property such as the Nazis did with many European Jews, or stealing artifacts and artworks from museums. Despite the adoption of the Convention Against the Trafficking of Illicit Cultural Property in 1970, the practice of looting remains active and often extremely lucrative. Some looted pieces wind up with their captors, but many more wind up on the international black market where they can be sold for wartime profit.

This not only further destroys cultural heritage, but can exacerbate and prolong the underlying conflict putting these sites and artifacts at risk.

Despite the recognized risk to cultural heritage, recent conflicts have put the problem into stark relief. Unlike other recent conflicts that saw the (often intentional) destruction of heritage sites such as the shelling of Old Town Dubrovnik in Croatia, the destruction of the Stari Most in Bosnia and the  demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the current conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East have provided a steady stream of events where cultural property is intentionally destroyed or looted.

“Today we see a totally different dimension,” Mechtild Rossler, the deputy director of the heritage division at UNESCO told UN Dispatch by phone. “It covers a huge area in the Middle East – Iraq and Syria, but also Libya and now Yemen. And the dimensions are far worse than we’ve seen before.”

The constant attention, the popularity of the sites being attacked and the publicizing of new attacks by groups like ISIS means that a much stronger political will is growing to find new solutions to this age old problem. In February, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199 calling for a halt to illegal trade with extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. As Rossler pointed out, it is also the first time that the Security Council called upon UNESCO directly to help stop the illicit flow of looted cultural property from conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. Doing so would not only help preserve the cultural heritage of these countries, but also put a stop to what is believed to be a major source of funding for terrorist activities. But it’s a big mandate for a small agency like UNESCO, which already has lost an estimated 22 per cent of its operating budget since 2011 due to a freeze in US spending after the agency accepted Palestine as a member state.

However the understanding of the stakes involved here – where the preservation of cultural heritage is also linked to human security – is bringing together new partners to help stop the trafficking of looted items and document activities at cultural heritage sites. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science are tracking destruction in various archeological sites in Syria via satellite, while independent archeologists and art historians work together to track where such looted items wind up. For the first time, UNESCO is also working directly with major brokers in the art market such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s to monitor any illicit pieces making their way to the market and to help give buyers a clear provenance of the items they are considering purchasing.

But despite improved attempts to document and track ongoing destruction, there is no denying that permanent damage will happen. Already sites in ancient cities of Hatra, Nineveh and Nimrud has been blown up, demolished or hacked away by ISIS while major archeological sites in Syria continue to be looted by all sides of the conflict. But recent events in Mali highlight what can be done to mitigate the damage.

“The lesson we learned from Mali is that UNESCO can’t intervene on the ground with the few people we have and with the security situation,” said Rossler. “But when the mandate on culture is inscribed for the UN troops, we can do something.” Indeed, the inclusion of the importance of cultural property in the mandate for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping force currently deployed to Mali, helped UNESCO fully document the destruction of 16 ancient Sufi mausoleums demolished by Ansar Dine in 2012.  Last month, UNESCO referred that destruction to the International Criminal Court with accompanying documentation as a crime against humanity.

If the ICC pursues the charges, it will mark a significant step in bringing accountability to those who choose to destroy cultural heritage. Although such acts are frequently condemned, with a few exceptions, punishment rarely follows. As the world continues to monitor destruction in Syria and Iraq, it is clear that more needs to be done. But as the tools available for agencies like UNESCO grows, there is rising hope that maybe we can save some of our past for the future generations of tomorrow.