UNESCO chief appeals to parties in Libya to stop destruction of cultural heritage

Interior of the Ahmed Pasha Karamanli Mosque in the medina of Libya's capital Tripoli. Photo: UNESCO/Abdul-Jawad

15 October 2014 – The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today called on all parties in Libya to safeguard the country’s cultural and religious heritage amid a recent intensification of violence there.

In a press release, UNESCO reported that a group of gunmen stormed and vandalized the renowned Karamanli Mosque on 7 October, located in the capital, Tripoli, removing ceramic tiles, marble decorations and severely damaging the floor. Days later, the UN agency noted, the historic Othman Pasha Madrassa was damaged and looted while another attempt to vandalize the Darghout Mosque was thwarted by local volunteers.

“I firmly condemn the recent attacks on cultural and religious heritage buildings in the old city of Tripoli. Looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects can only deepen the wounds of the Libyan society, struggling for normalcy and recovery,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova declared in the statement, adding that she commended the citizens and volunteers for protecting the Darghout Mosque.

“These attacks cannot be seen as isolated or collateral damages. They take place in a global context of repeated and deliberate attacks against cultural heritage, in Libya and elsewhere, threatening social cohesion and fuelling violence and division within society,” she added.

In recent weeks, the North African nation has been embroiled in some of the worst fighting since the 2011 uprising that ousted former leader Muammar al-Qadhafi. The Libyan parliament convened for the first time in early August of this year, welcomed by the UN as a move toward peace. However, protracted battles between opposing armed groups continue to take their toll on civilians and the country’s cultural heritage.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), intensified fighting between rival armed groups in Libya has forcibly displaced nearly 290,000 people across the country, including 100,000, who urgently need food, health care and adequate shelter, especially now that winter is approaching.

Against that backdrop, UNESCO urged all national and international partners “to reinforce actions and vigilance in order to protect Libya’s cultural heritage in the current context of rising unrest and insecurity” and reaffirmed its engagement with Libyan authorities to reinforce emergency measures for cultural heritage protection against looting and illicit trafficking.

UNESCO has had experience in coordinating actions to preserve heritage in times of conflict, most recently in Mali, Iraq, and Syria. In Libya, the agency will soon implement an emergency and risk preparedness training course to enable the authorities to carry out rapid assessment, documentation and monitoring of heritage.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Libya: Intensifying fighting continues to take heavy civilian toll, warns UN agency

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews