UNESCO chief calls for ‘protected cultural zones’ in war-torn Iraq, Syria

Protecting cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria. Photo: UNESCO

3 December 2014 – Denouncing the persecution of minorities, attacks on cultural heritage and illicit trafficking in cultural properties in Iraq and Syria as “part of a strategy of deliberate cultural cleansing of exceptional violence,” the head of the United Nations cultural agency today urged the creation of “protected cultural zones” around heritage sites in the two crisis-riven countries.

“It is not too late to take action,” Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said, adding “there can be no purely military solution to this crisis. To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

Opening an international conference at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on threats to cultural heritage and diversity in Iraq and Syria, Ms. Bokova suggested a start could be made with the city of Aleppo, and especially the Umayyad Mosque, a highly iconic site located in the World Heritage Syrian city of Aleppo.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Ms. Bokova’s call to place cultural diversity at the heart of humanitarian and peace building efforts in Syria and Iraq was strongly endorsed by the UN, adding that “the protection of cultural heritage is a security imperative.”

Both Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, and Nikolay Mladenov, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), emphasized the need to integrate education and culture into emergency measures, along with humanitarian aid, to protect human rights and vulnerable civilian populations.

Mr. de Mistura argued that protected cultural zones could be created through a “bottom up plan of action,” building on the fact that the people of Syria have had their fill of violence, bloodshed, and suffering, while Mr. Mladenov denounced terrorists who resort to genocide, the enslavement of women, with blatant disregard for human lives and human rights as they seek to destroy the State of Iraq. He said that cultural diversity need to be preserved not only for peace building but also for the whole development and stability in the region.

The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, said Iraq’s “soul” was the heritage of its successive and diverse cultures, which had made a tremendous contribution to humanity over more than 6,000 years. He urged the international community to help Iraq resist its enemies and pledged his Government’s support for cultural diversity and pluralism.

Among other issues discussed by the 500 decision-makers, experts and representatives from both Iraq and Syria, were the need to implement the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its additional protocols, as well as to end impunity against deliberate attacks on cultural heritage – a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Participants expressed a strong support to the proposal of an international ban on the trading of antiquities from Syria, in line with the recommendation by the Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council.

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Help save the cultural heritage of Syria. Credit: UNESCO

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