Why Unesco Needs the United States

The Islamic State destroyed the 12th-century Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, as international forces were closing in to liberate the city. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Islamic State destroyed the 12th-century Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, as international forces were closing in to liberate the city. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Oct. 12, the United States announced it will withdraw from Unesco, the cultural and educational arm of the United Nations, because of what it calls the organization’s anti-Israel bias.

Unesco’s largely symbolic presence in the Palestinian territories — including the designation of the Old City of Hebron as a World Heritage site — makes up a tiny part of a global mandate covering 195 member states and 10 associate members and will not be affected by the absence of the United States.

With its misguided decision, the United States is forfeiting its leadership in a cause on which Unesco and its partners in the United States, Europe and beyond are finally making progress: protecting art, sacred buildings and other historic treasures from deliberate attacks during armed conflict.

From the smashing of mud-brick shrines in Timbuktu to the burning of Rohingya villages in Myanmar, assaults on cultural heritage have become a depressingly common feature of contemporary conflict. Even amid its rapid retreat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has continued its destruction. In June, with international forces closing in on Mosul, the group blew up the 12th-century Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its extraordinary minaret, whose leaning, “humpback” silhouette has for centuries defined the city’s skyline.

For years, Unesco’s outgoing director general, Irina Bokova, has sounded the alarm, noting that the attacks are part of campaigns to wipe out entire communities. Ms. Bokova wrote in 2012 that “we must start seeing cultural heritage as an international security issue.”

In early 2015, the Islamic State showed how real a threat this was in its on-camera rampage through the Mosul Museum and defacement of the colossal Winged Bull of Nineveh. Yet the world stood by months later, when the group occupied the ancient site of Palmyra, blew up its extraordinary temples and decapitated Khaled al-Asaad, the 84-year-old Syrian archaeologist who devoted his career to the site.

Unesco bore some of the blame. By loudly condemning such attacks, the organization gave publicity to would-be destroyers even as it lacked authority to stop them. And because it worked on behalf of sovereign member states, Unesco was unable to reach rebel-held areas where its resources were most needed.

In the final years of the Obama administration, United States officials began to embrace Unesco’s call to action. In 2014, John Kerry, then the secretary of state, warned that the Islamic State’s campaign against culture was “purposeful” and directly connected to attacks on populations.

Meanwhile, the government-administered Smithsonian Institution, working with groups in the United States and the Middle East, began giving emergency training and technical support to Iraqi and Syrian preservationists. This has been crucial to the successful protection of sites and museums in northern Syria, among other places.

And in May 2016, President Barack Obama enacted bipartisan legislation to protect international heritage “at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters” — establishing for the first time a body within the executive branch to address the threat.

The American efforts coincided with bold new thinking in the international community. In 2016, recognizing that cultural destruction was directly related to ethnic cleansing, the International Committee of the Red Cross entered an agreement with Unesco, in which it pledged to help evacuate cultural objects “at imminent risk.” While the accord has not yet been tested in practice, it is significant because the I.C.R.C. is often on the ground on both sides of a conflict and has unparalleled access to sites.

With Unesco’s support, France and the United Arab Emirates established a $75 million fund to provide “safe havens” and other forms of protection for objects and monuments under threat of attack. The American investor and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan, who has given $1 million, is chairman of the fund.

Finally, in March, pushed by Unesco and the governments of France and Italy, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution explicitly linking attacks on cultural heritage to terrorism and calling on member states to provide one another with “all necessary assistance” to prevent those attacks.

Over the past year, an independent, United States-based task force — sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Trust with support from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — has been exploring ways to give teeth to these commitments. In a report to be released by the Getty Trust in December, the group draws on the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, doctrine, adopted by the United Nations in 2005, which provides a basis for intervention to prevent humanitarian atrocities.

The movement to integrate cultural heritage into security policy has quickly gained support from several European governments and leading international institutions. In a landmark August 2016 decision against an extremist in Timbuktu, the International Criminal Court ruled the destruction of cultural heritage a war crime.

The European Union has formally incorporated the protection of cultural heritage in the mandates of 15 E.U. military and civilian missions around the world. And for the first time, the United Nations is including the protection of sites and monuments in an official mandate for armed peacekeepers in Mali.

During the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September, the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect convened a group of top Western officials to discuss the new strategies. It was attended by the European Union minister of foreign affairs, Ms. Bokova and her newly appointed successor at Unesco, the former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay.

With its boycott of Unesco, the United States was absent. “I’m pretty sure the U.S. government hates ISIS. It doesn’t want to see the destruction of antiquities in Mosul or Timbuktu,” Simon Adams, the director of the Global Center, said. “But at a key moment when Unesco is reshaping this debate, the U.S. opts out.”

The international community has a woeful record of protecting art and monuments in conflict zones. To truly make a difference, the recent breakthroughs will require robust cooperation among Unesco, the Security Council, regional governments, international peacekeepers, NGOs and above all local activists on the ground.

But if the United States, whose military has greater reach than that of any other country, turns its back on these efforts, the chances of success will be slim. And we may find ourselves watching another Palmyra reduced to rubble.

Hugh Eakin, a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Culman Center, is working on a book about modern art in the World War II era.

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