Culture and Emergencies

© CC-BY-SA 4.0 Tristan Weddigen - National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In an armed conflict or disaster situation, culture is particularly at risk, owing to its inherent vulnerability and tremendous symbolic value. At the same time, culture is as a driver of recovery, strengthening the resilience of a community.

Conflicts:

During recent conflicts, cultural heritage and cultural expressions has not only increasingly suffered from collateral damage, large-scale looting and illicit trafficking, but has also become the target of systematic and deliberate attacks in numerous conflicts around the world, due to its high significance it the communities to which it belongs.

Culture is particularly vulnerable to collateral damage, looting and intentional destruction, which is often paired with the persecution of individuals based on their cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation, the violation of their cultural rights and the denial of their identities.

Because of the strong connection between culture and peoples’ identities, the intentional destruction and misappropriation of cultural heritage and the violation of cultural rights are aggravating factors in armed conflict and represent major obstacles to dialogue, peace and reconciliation.

Disasters:

Disasters caused by natural and human-made hazards including earthquakes, fires, floods, landslides and typhoons, also have caused extensive damage to, if not the complete loss of, innumerable cultural and natural heritage sites, museums, cultural institutions, as well as intangible practices, over the years.

A growing number of natural disasters is causing serious damage to heritage and disrupting the culture sector in general, thus undermining the resilience of the affected communities and their prospects for a sustainable development based on local resources and capacities. In some regions, disasters are also exacerbated by the impact of climate change, particularly in the case of extreme meteorological events.

Culture, however, is not only a victim of emergency situations. Immediately after a disaster or an armed conflict, communities often find in heritage an essential element of material and psychological support. The ability to access one’s heritage – be it a religious building, a historic city, an archaeological site or a landscape – or to engage in a specific cultural practice, may provide a much-needed sense of identity, dignity and empowerment.

Moreover post emergency, culture can be a vehicle both to rebuild economies and societies and to foster tolerance and reconciliation, mitigating tensions and preventing renewed escalation into conflict. Music, dance, theatre and cinema, for example, have been used to build mutual understanding among diverse refugee communities.

This is why protecting culture in emergency situations, and building on its power to promote peace-building, recovery and reconciliation, as well as its potential to reduce vulnerabilities to disasters, is fundamental to achieving sustainable development and fostering security.

Through the implementation of its mutually reinforcing Culture Conventions, UNESCO works with the international community to protect culture and promote cultural pluralism in emergency situations, implementing activities in times of civil strife and warfare, as well as in the wake of disasters caused by natural or human-made hazards.

To better support its Member States in preparing for and addressing emergency situations, UNESCO created:

It is critical to strengthen our collective capacity to protect culture and promote cultural pluralism as tools for more resilient and peaceful societies.

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