At this very moment, the invaluable legacy of humanity’s common heritage is under attack in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Heritage sites are destroyed and looted to finance terrorism, individuals are persecuted on religious and cultural grounds, cultural diversity is targeted.
The destruction of culture has become an instrument of terror, in a global strategy to undermine societies, propagate intolerance and erase memories. This cultural cleansing is a war crime that is now used as a tactic of war, to tear humanity from the history it shares.
This is why the protection of culture must be an integral part of all humanitarian and security efforts, and cannot be delinked from the protection of human lives and the support we owe to all the victims.
There is good reason to feel powerless and angry when we see images of places such as Palmyra bombed and dynamited, when we know that some of these treasures are lost forever. But we can and must act at several levels.
Three ways to fight back
First, we must fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects coming from Iraq and Syria.
This trafficking is contributing directly to the financing of terrorism, and is accelerating the disintegration of societies. The UN Security Council has adopted a ban on international trade of cultural objects from Iraq and Syria. We are already seeing the results, working with customs and professionals of the art market. Antiquities from Syria and Iraq have been seized by authorities in Finland, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Britain and the United States. And this must continue, so they can be returned to where they belong.
Second, we need to reinforce preventive actions.
Today, in Iraq and Syria, heritage heroes, ordinary citizens and museum professionals are risking their lives to protect their culture. They need training, assistance and support. UNESCO is also sharing with the concerned states precise coordinates of each site to prevent them from being targeted under the provision of the Hague 1954 Convention.
Third, we must strengthen international cooperation. Violent extremism is a global challenge, and we must respond at the global level. Last year was marked by several important resolutions by UNESCO, ISESCO, the United Nations General Assembly, the European Union and many other international bodies. States must strengthen cooperation, through intelligence sharing and joint action. UNESCO has launched a global coalition to enhance coordination with all key partners, including armed forces, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, museums and the art market. Countries like France have even started to integrate the protection of heritage when training their armed forces.
The challenge we face is new in scale and nature. In the past, we saw similar deliberate strategies to destroy culture in Afghanistan and in Mali, where extremists persecuted individuals on religious and cultural grounds. They did so because they knew the power of culture to bring people together, to carry values, identities and a sense of belonging. They knew culture is a source of resistance and resilience, providing communities on the frontline of conflict ways of looking to the future with hope. Today, ISIS is deploying the same tactics, putting propaganda videos on the internet to spread hatred on a global scale – targeting vulnerable young women and men and attempting to radicalize them and create impunity for appalling acts.
These attempts to radicalize and recruit foreign fighters cannot be defeated by weapons alone. We must respond to this propaganda and put forward a different narrative of culture as a force for unity and dialogue on a global scale.
This is the goal of UNESCO’s #unite4heritage campaign, launched last year. Understanding history and the wealth of Islamic culture can equip citizens with the tools they need to resist and respond to the distorted vision of religion, the glorification of violence, and the disregard for human lives that ISIS tries to instil in this global battle for hearts and minds.
World heritage is built on the idea that there are cultural and natural heritages of universal value that we must protect together. The destruction of Mosul, Nimrud, Alep or Hatra is not only a loss for Iraq and Syria – it is an attack on us all. Palmyra, with its Roman columns and oriental fortress along Greek temples, then transformed into mosques, bears witness to centuries of dialogue among cultures and civilizations. This is a stunning reminder that there is no “pure culture”. Even if ruins can be damaged, this vision inherited from history cannot be silenced.
Every woman and man has the power to voice this message, and we must support them across all platforms. Schools, museums, the art world and the media, with the support of governments and civil society, are key to sharing the story of such sites, to teach young people about the values they carry. This is an integral part of all efforts to protect humanity’s heritage.
In 2012, when extremists destroyed 14 mausoleums in Timbuktu, Mali, they declared that “world heritage does not exist”. Today, UNESCO has rebuilt all of the mausoleums, with the help of the people of Timbuktu. What better way of showing how culture has the power to overcome hatred and bring people together?
Author: Irina Bokova, Director General, UNESCO. She is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.