Photo: Destruction at the World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria (file). Credit: UNESCO - Photo: 2017

UN Security Council Resolves To Protect Cultural Heritage

By J Nastranis

NEW YORK (IDN) – The destruction of landmarks such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman monuments in Palmyra, or shrines and mosques in Tikrit and Mosul are reprehensible attempts to erase history, says Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

But the destruction and looting are also generating profits for terrorists through trafficking, carried out in collusion with organized crime groups. Those profits fund further acts of terrorism, and enable yet more destruction and looting of cultural sites and archaeological treasures, Fedotov told the United Nations Security Council.

With a view to putting an end to such acts, the Security Council unanimously adopted an historic resolution on March 24, condemning unlawful destruction and pillaging of cultural heritage such as religious sites and artefacts. The resolution is expected to strengthen protections for such heritage during armed conflicts where they are most vulnerable.

The resolution 2347 for the protection of heritage was adopted after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova briefed the Security Council on “Maintenance of international peace and security: destruction and trafficking of cultural heritage by terrorist groups and in situations of armed conflict”.

The briefing by Bokova before the Security Council marked the first time a Director-General of UNESCO has been invited in this capacity. The briefing was held at the initiative of France and Italy and under the Presidency of the United Kingdom.

“The deliberate destruction of heritage […] has become a tactic of war to tear societies over the long term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing,” said Bokova, following the adoption of the resolution. “This is why defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives,” she added.

Bokova explained that since the adoption of Resolution 2199 (in 2015), which prohibits trade in cultural property from Iraq and Syria, efforts were well underway to disrupt terrorist financing through the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

Together, UNESCO, INTERPOL, UNODC, customs services, the private sector and museums are all bolstering cooperation, coordinating new action,” she noted.

Through the newly-adopted resolution, the Security Council also underlined that such destruction can hamper post-conflict reconciliation, undermine economic and cultural development and, that, in certain conditions, could constitute a war crime.

“Weapons are not enough to defeat violent extremism. Building peace requires culture also; it requires education, prevention, and the transmission of heritage,” added Bokova. “This is the message of this historic resolution,” she stated.

UNODC Executive Director Fedotov also welcomed the resolution’s emphasis on international cooperation in crime prevention and criminal justice responses to counter trafficking in cultural property.

“The resolution […] addresses the vital issue of trafficking in cultural property as a source of terrorism financing, and also sets out ways of protecting cultural heritage during armed conflict where it is most vulnerable. This undoubtedly strengthens the international community’s ability to tackle this pressing issue,” he said.

Fedotov further welcomed the resolution’s emphasis on international cooperation in crime prevention and criminal justice responses to counter trafficking in cultural property, including through the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), and its recognition of UNODC’s “central role”, together with INTERPOL and UNESCO.

Fedotov also highlighted the need to strengthen investigative capacities, border management, customs and anti-money laundering measures and international cooperation, as well as to bring in museums, dealers and the tourism sector in the fight against the destruction, looting, trafficking and sale of cultural heritage.

Briefing to the Security Council on the destruction and trafficking of cultural heritage by terrorist groups and in situations of armed conflict, Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman said that in addition to making every effort to implement the international legal and normative framework on protection of culture, as well as strengthen international cooperation, a response was needed from global criminal justice to prevent trafficking in cultural property by disrupting organized criminal and terrorist networks.

“We need to put a stronger focus on investigation, cross-border cooperation and exchange of information, and on bringing in private and public sector partners, including dealers and the tourism sector, to promote supply chain integrity and stop the illicit trade and sale of cultural property,” Feltman added.

Also speaking at the Security Council, Commander Fabrizio Parulli of the Carabinieri Italiani (the national gendarmerie of Italy) and the UNESCO Unite4Heritage task force shared the latest data on illicit trafficking, and said that over the course of last year, 800,000 artefacts had been seized by Italian forces in the fight against the financing of criminal activities.

On March 20, 2017 UNESCO Director-General, participated in the Donors’ Conference on the occasion of the launch of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas. The Conference was held at the Paris Louvre Museum in the Khorsabad courtyard, in the presence of the French President François Hollande and the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Bokova welcomed the profound commitment of France and President Hollande to defending heritage and placing culture at the heart of the International Political Agenda.

“You have been among those who have put the greatest emphasis on heritage and the strategic need to protect it in order to respond to modern conflicts,” she recalled, highlighting the joint mission to Timbuktu in 2013 following the liberation of the city and which kicked off UNESCO mausoleum reconstruction campaign.

Bokova reviewed the wide range of measures taken by UNESCO in recent years, including the adoption of a comprehensive strategy and the creation of an emergency fund for the protection of heritage. “UNESCO will continue to play its full part in coordinating international initiatives in this field,” she concluded.

“The protection of heritage is inseparable from the protection of human life,” declared President Hollande, announcing the project of a framework resolution at the United Nations Security Council on the protection of cultural heritage.

“Those who destroy heritage are well aware of its power to unite communities, and they intentionally target culture, schools and libraries to enslave and accelerate the disintegration of societies. I have called this a strategy of cultural cleansing. This is a war crime and it has become a tactic of war,” added the UNESCO Director-General.

The creation of a new international fund, announced at the Abu Dhabi Conference in December 2016, reinforces existing tools – including UNESCO’s emergency fund established in 2015 – and gives a new impetus to international cooperation for the protection of heritage.

The Fund, whose statutes are deposited in Geneva, aims to raise $100 million by 2019. Seven countries, including France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg, Morocco and Switzerland pledged some $75 million on March 20. Several other states have promised to make a contribution also, including in the form of expertise and political support, including notably Italy, Great Britain, Germany, China, the Republic of Korea and Mexico.

“Three-quarters of the target has already been reached,” concluded Jack Lang, President of the Arab World Institute, and organizer of the conference, alongside Mohamed Al Mubarak, special representative of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 March 2017]

Photo: Destruction at the World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria (file). Credit: UNESCO

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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