Culture Under Fire

Culture lies on the front line of conflicts across the world. Timbuktu has fallen into the hands of Tuareg rebel forces and shots have been fired around the city’s grand mosque, a Unesco World Heritage Site. This follows on the heels of the shelling of the city of Apamea in Syria. The citadel of Madiq and the ancient villages in the north of Syria, all of which are Unesco World Heritage Sites, could become collateral damage. They need our protection.

It may seem incongruous to denounce crimes against culture and call for their protection at a time of political instability and humanitarian crisis, but it isn’t.

Protecting culture is a security issue. There can be no lasting peace without respect. Attacks against cultural heritage are attacks against the very identity of communities. They mark a symbolic and real step up in the escalation of a conflict, leading to devastation that can be irreparable and whose impact lasts long after the dust has settled.

Attacks on the past make reconciliation much harder in the future. They can hold societies back from turning the page toward peace.

So protecting cultural heritage is not a luxury. We cannot leave this for better days, when tensions have cooled. To lay the ground for peace, we must act now to protect culture, while tensions are high.

We have seen the power of World Heritage to bring together divided communities and promote international cooperation in difficult contexts.

I witnessed this personally in southeast Europe, for instance, when Unesco helped rebuild the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s.

The power of culture was also on display during the restoration of the Koguryo tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, societies are drawing today on their millennial heritage to come together and look toward the future. At these times of increasing uncertainty and diminishing resources, this is an asset we cannot overlook.

This doesn’t make it easy. To succeed, nations must unite. The very notion of World Heritage draws on the idea of collective responsibility for a common good. It was born in Egypt in the 1960s, with the international campaign to save the Nubian monuments and remove the Abu Simbel temples from danger. Less than one generation after the devastation of World War II, this was a campaign for global solidarity to safeguard stones and statues, and, through them, a concept of shared humanity.

We need ambitious leadership again today.

Protecting the cultural heritage of the world concerns us all. It is force for mutual understanding and a powerhouse of local development. Unesco is the custodian of this idea and its practice. We are celebrating this year the 40th anniversary of our World Heritage Convention, which embodies this vision.

This is a fragile process that can never be taken for granted. A few shells are enough to destroy a millennial site forever. We all remember the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. A few hours of pillaging are enough for priceless antique objects to disappear in illicit trafficking.

This is why Unesco alerts states of their responsibility to protect culture properties in the event of conflict and to prohibit and prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. This is why we are working with the national authorities, with the World Customs Organization and Interpol, and the International Council of Museums, as well as auction houses, to protect humanity’s cultural heritage and prevent its pillaging.

We do all of this, because we believe culture matters for peace. For culture too, there is a responsibility to protect.

Irina Bokova is director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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