30.11.2016 - ODG

Defending cultural heritage and diversity -- Defending a single humanity


On 30 November, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova gave the 2016 MacCormick European Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on “Cultural Cleansing – the Imperative of Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity”. The event was chaired by the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

The mission of the Royal Society of Edinburgh is “to play a leading role in a modern enlightenment that will enable Scotland to contribute to addressing the global challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.” This reflects the long history of the Royal Society of Edinburgh as Scotland’s Academy of Sciences and Letters, embodying the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment.  

“Culture has always been the victim of war, as collateral damage,” said the Director-General. “But what we see today is new in scale and nature and this is why I have spoken of ‘cultural cleansing’”.

The Director-General highlighted that ‘hard power’ is not enough today, “we need ‘soft power’ to build lasting peace… we need education, we need freedom of expression, we need intercultural dialogue,” she said calling for new policies and new solidarity.

“World heritage embodies the revolutionary, humanist idea that people of all cultures can unite around heritage. This is why when a World Heritage site is destroyed anywhere in the world, we all suffer, we are all diminished,” said Irina Bokova highlighting that violent extremists attack culture because they reject the message of dialogue it carries.

“Culture is more than buildings and stones. This is about identities and belonging. This is about culture as a force of resilience, a source of strength to face adversity and rebuild,” explained the Director-General. “This is why I am convinced that safeguarding cultural heritage is a security and peacebuilding imperative today, vital to restore confidence, to renew dialogue and hope [...] the destruction of cultural heritage is a human rights issue.”

“When violent extremists promote fear and division, we must respond with skills for critical thinking, with opportunities for civic engagement, with competences for intercultural dialogue,” stated Ms Bokova, giving an overview of UNESCO’s work in advancing global citizenship education and in investing education to prevent violent extremism. In this context, the Director-General also underscored the power of culture to transform and empower minds. She reviewed here UNESCO’s action to rebuild heritage in Nubia, Egypt, in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Timbuktu, Mali...

The Director-General highlighted the importance of Scotland in all this:

“The leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment – David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns and so many others – lit the flame of a modern humanism, inspired by a profound belief in the power of reason and positive change, in the imperative of creating and sharing knowledge.”

The city of Edinburgh is a shining example of this spirit -- as a World Heritage city, a UNESCO Creative City for Literature, and a city hosting some of the world’s greatest festivals. The same vibrancy may be found across Scotland -- in Dundee, UNESCO Creative City of Design, in Glasgow, UNESCO Creative City of Music, in Scotland’s 2 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, in 2 UNESCO Global Geoparks, in 3 UNESCO University Chairs – including the most recent UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Language and the Arts, at the University of Glasgow, held by Professor Alison Phipps, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 

A recent report by the UK National Commission for UNESCO on UNESCO in Scotland estimated that UNESCO projects in Scotland generated some £ 11 million from April 2014 to March 2015.

In this respect, Irina Bokova was honoured that a new bust of Sir Neil MacCormick, in the presence of her spouse, was unveiled on this occasion.

“Wherever and whenever culture is reborn, people rise with it,” Irina Bokova stated. “It is this global vision of culture that we must promote together today, because it provides us with meaning and strength to live today, to look forward to the future.”

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