» Our responsibility to protect cultural heritage from terrorism and mass atrocities
21.09.2017 - ODG

Our responsibility to protect cultural heritage from terrorism and mass atrocities

© UNESCO/Joel Sheakoski

There is an urgent need to enhance the protection of cultural heritage targeted by terrorists and perpetrators of mass atrocities -- this was the message of the high-level meeting on 21 September on the margins of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

At the initiative of the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations and the European Union, UNESCO, UNODC, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect shared their expertise during a high-level panel discussion with world leaders and senior government officials.

The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage not only affects peoples’ historical identity but also hampers post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding.

Beyond possibly constituting a war crime itself, intentional destruction of cultural heritage is part of a wider effort by terrorists and violent extremists to destroy a group and its history. Mass atrocity crimes are often committed against an identified population, which can be singled out by specific characteristics, ethnic, religious, linguistic or other.

The UN Security Council recognized the link between the illicit trafficking of cultural objects and the financing of terrorism with its adoption under Chapter VII of the UN Charter of resolution 2199 in 2015, as well as the devastating impact of cultural heritage destruction in conflict situations with the unanimous adoption of resolution 2347 in 2017.

UNESCO and UNODC have joined forces to support Member States in the implementation of these resolutions, launching an international platform against illicit trafficking, strengthening cooperation among customs, police forces and cultural experts that will be featured in an upcoming  Secretary-General report this autumn.

Rallying partners to enhance the protection of cultural heritage, Angelino Alfano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, declared: "Acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage re huge obstacles to peace therefore Italy has placed culture at the center of the agenda for peace and security."

He further highlighted that ”culture is more powerful than any threat, or  any bomb" and this is why Italy has spearheaded the inclusion of culture in the recent G 7 Declaration as “political and security imperative”.

EU High Representative Mogherini said, "Culture is about the economy, sustainable development, peace and reconciliation -- this has been for too long a side issue and it is now at the heart of European foreign policy with the adoption of the first European Union Strategy on International cultural relations".  

She added that the European Union will include the protection of cultural property in all EU military and civil missions, including through the appointment of a cultural property protection expert in each one.

Advocating for increased political commitment, Irina Bokova called for “better integration of heritage protection in all strategies of response and prevention of violent extremism – notably, in education”. 

She added that “safeguarding the stones of Palmyra is important, but sharing the message of Palmyra is vital. This is not about temples and buildings – this is about preventing threats driven by distorted interpretations of history or religion. This is about protecting human rights and the humanity we all share.”

The Executive Director of UNODC Mr Yuriy Fedotov stressed that “while the safeguarding human lives remains the priority, actions against illicit trafficking of cultural property should constitute a key part of the response to threats to peace and security”.

Referring to the recent ruling of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the case of the destruction of shrines and mausoleums in Timbuktu (Mali), the prosecutor Ms Fatou Bensouda emphasized that it “sent a clear signal that intentional targeting of cultural property is a serious crime and will not go unpunished”.  

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