From around the globe there has been shock and censure at the destruction of World Heritage sites by ISIS in Iraq and Syria and from the attacks on museums and cultural sites. In strong words, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova characterized these acts as a war crime and a cultural cleansing of humanity’s ancient heritage. The towers of early Arab Kingdoms, Hellenic and Roman remains, monuments from the Assyrian Empire in 13th century BC and a great museum collection have all been targets of these devastating attacks.
The World Heritage Convention is the most universal of international legal instruments based on the idea of shared values and understanding of the common heritage of humankind. As in the dynamiting of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001, the targeting of heritage sites by ISIS is a rejection of the rich overlapping heritage of the region and of the world. This is a new kind of destruction not incidental to armed conflict, but the destruction of a nation’s heritage as part of the arsenal of war deployed against our common humanity.
So what can be done? Organizations such as US ICOMOS and the US Committee of the Blue Shield have taken strong position and offered aid. Representative Elliot Engel (NY) has reintroduced HR 1493, a bill to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, and natural or other disasters. Other proposals are to step-up monitoring of the trade in illicit artifacts, which has dramatically increased in the impacted region. It is reported that ISIS is funding operations by the trade in antiquities. International aid is also needed to help support the efforts of archeologists and curators, the monument men and women of the 21st century, currently working in the region.
But one concrete action the heritage community can take right now is to push the United States to resume funding UNESCO. And if that step is just too far for our current Congress, then push to fund the work of the World Heritage Center.
As Andrew Potts, Executive Director of US/ICOMOS put it, “the sincerity of American rhetoric can no longer be squared with the very real (if inadvertent) sabotage current United States policies are doing to the global response to this massive use of heritage as a tactic of war. Even while deploring these attacks, many Americans are unaware that the United States is currently withholding funding for the World Heritage Center and UNESCO, the very units within the international community designed to help these sites — with devastating impacts on the capacity of both agencies. After three years in which funding for cultural heritage has been held up as a pawn in another geopolitical stalemate, it is critical that Congress immediately restore this funding before a single additional World Heritage site is lost.”
Now more than ever, we need to stand with the international community that supports the universal values of cultural heritage and understanding. We need to show our solidarity with the rest of the signatories to the World Heritage Convention. Read here for the background on why the United States has stopped funding to UNESCO and its World Heritage programs.
Some of the World Heritage sites at risk or lost forever from conflicts in the region:
World Heritage (1986)
World Heritage Tentative List (1999)
World Heritage (1985)
World Heritage Tentative List (2000)