Cultural heritage must be saved from new “21st century wars”

© UNESCO/Prof. Maamoun Abdul Karim
Aleppo mosque

Organized by the United Nations University, the conference “21st Century Wars – 2000-2014”, held at UNESCO on 27 February, examines how the international community should respond to the “new wars” of our times.

For UNESCO, peace is not the result of a treaty but part of a global culture, founded on mutual respect, understanding, and dialogue. Written in 1945, UNESCO’s Constitution begins with words that have lost none of their impact: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” Achieving real progress in development and peace requires a veritable breakthrough in human knowledge and capacities. This means developing the full talents of every person, starting with education, science, culture, and communication and information.

One of the most difficult questions concerns the role of international interventions in rescuing threatened populations. While the 2005 UN World Summit established the responsibility to protect, the use of force remains a sensitive issue.

Participating in the UNU conference are leading personalities who have played prominent roles in resolving a range of crises from the past decade, including Bernard Kouchner (Former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and theorist of the “duty to intervene”), Fatou Bensouda (Prosecutor, International Criminal Court), Igor Ivanov (Former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs), Mohamed El Baradei (Former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize), Dominique de Villepin (Former French Prime Minister), Sergio de Queiroz Duarte (Former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament), and others. During panel discussions, they will debate whether it is possible to “fight evil”; the responsibility to protect and issues of sovereignty, as well as new challenges that the international community must solve.

For UNESCO, education is vital to protect the dignity of all, regardless of colour, gender, or national, ethnic or religious identity. It helps to counter violent extremism by teaching respect for diversity. Cultures of exclusion cannot be allowed. In today’s conflicts, culture has become an international security issue. Whenever a conflict erupts, culture is always a choice target to fuel hatred and block reconciliation. For example, between 1992 and 1995 in Sarajevo, belligerents attacked books, libraries and street signs in order to disrupt the basis of life that brought people from different cultures together. “Destroying culture hurts societies for the long term. It deprives them of collective memory banks as well as precious social and economic assets,” wrote UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

 As an immediate response to damages caused by a fire set on 7 February, UNESCO sent experts to help recover collections from the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Today, three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria –  Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers, and Aleppo including the Aleppo Citadel – are being used for military purposes, putting them at the risk of imminent and irreversible destruction. “Damage to cultural heritage is a blow against the identity and history of the Syrian people - it is a blow against the universal heritage of humanity… I appeal to all parties to the conflict in Syria to abstain from using for any military purpose cultural property or their immediate surroundings. All this must be part of wider efforts to end violence, to protect human life and move to peace,” said the Director-General on 20 February. Two days later, the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution, calling on “all parties to immediately end all violence which has led to human suffering in Syria, save Syria’s rich societal mosaic and cultural heritage, and take appropriate steps to ensure the protection of Syria’s World Heritage Sites”. The best way to protect cultural heritage in conflict is to make the most of it to prevent conflicts, and make it a pillar of peace building.

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