Protecting Cultural Heritage Threads through United Nations Peacekeeping Strategy, Secretary-General Tells Yale University Colloquium

SG/SM/17664
12 April 2016

Protecting Cultural Heritage Threads through United Nations Peacekeeping Strategy, Secretary-General Tells Yale University Colloquium

Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Global Colloquium of University Presidents on the Preservation of Cultural Heritage:  Challenges and Strategies, at Yale University, in New Haven, United States, today:

It is a great pleasure to be here again at Yale, and to take part in this United Nations Global Colloquium.  I am inspired to be among some of the most distinguished academics in the world and to connect your ground-breaking research with the global diplomacy of the United Nations.  I was energized and inspired by our previous meetings which covered maternal health, empowering young people, and harnessing new technologies to meet global challenges.

I am particularly happy to see so many students here today, for this very important colloquium on the preservation of cultural heritage.  The destruction of cultural treasures on a vast scale over recent years makes this theme even more timely and relevant.  It is appropriate that we are discussing this here at Yale, where the world-famous Beinecke library and the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage have done so much to raise awareness of culture in crisis.

President Peter Salovey, I know you have taken this important cause far beyond Yale, including to the World Economic Forum at Davos where you devoted Yale’s annual event to discussing ancient artefacts from Babylon and Palmyra.  On behalf of the United Nations, I would like to thank you and to express our great admiration for your commitment to humanity.

Many distinguished speakers are here to share their expertise on preserving cultural heritage.  Today, I would like to put the preservation of culture into a geopolitical context, to show why we at the United Nations believe it is essential to our mission of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.

Art, literature, music, poetry, architecture — these are the hallmarks of our human existence.  They form a common thread that unites all civilizations and cultures, a celebration of our emotional lives and the beauty of our natural environment.  Our cultural heritage defines our humanity.

Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, plays a quantifiable and crucial part in the health of the human species.  An attack on cultural heritage in one part of the world is an attack on us all.

But, cultural diversity is under grave threat around the globe.  Who could fail to be outraged by the destruction of the magnificent Buddhas of Bamyan, the monuments of Palmyra, the mosques and cultural artefacts of northern Mali?  This wanton vandalism is not collateral damage.  It is part of a ruthless wave of cultural and ethnic cleansing, inseparable from the persecution of the communities that created these cultural gems.  It is also part of a cycle of theft and profit that finances the activities of extremists and terrorists.

As a human family, we cannot let them erase our history and identity.  Any loss of cultural heritage is a loss of our common memory.  It impairs our ability to learn, to build experience and to apply the lessons of the past to the present and the future.  Culture is also one of the strongest driving forces for building societies and imbuing them with values.  It knits communities together with a sense of continuity.

Extremists and terrorists have known this throughout the ages.  They have always understood that by attacking and destroying cultural artefacts, buildings and monuments, they can divide people, erase their common values, shred the social fabric and create greater fragility and vulnerability to their cynical ideology.

In our response, we must be even more determined to safeguard and preserve culture than the extremists are to destroy it.  This must be central to our strategy for tackling violent extremism, building peace and restoring security.

The United Nations system is working to strengthen the links between the protection of cultural heritage, peacebuilding missions and humanitarian emergency response.  In Mali, for example, I saw the destruction caused by extremist militants to mausoleums and manuscripts when they took over Timbuktu in 2012.  It was not only about stones, buildings and papers.  It was about identity and dignity.

I will never forget speaking to the Grand Imam, representatives from the Christian community, the local government, young people and women’s representatives.  They all said they had lived together in a diverse community for years.  They all wanted education, jobs and, above all, peace.

As soon as Timbuktu was liberated, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the Malian Government launched a restoration operation, with logistical support from the “blue helmets” of our United Nations peacekeeping mission.  Like destruction, restoration is not only about buildings.  It is about history, identity, culture and the promise of the future.  I am proud to say that 14 mausoleums have now been completely restored.  The town’s people talk of the rebirth of Timbuktu.

UNESCO stands ready to travel to Palmyra, which was liberated just weeks ago, to help evaluate the damage and protect the city’s priceless cultural heritage.  I hope that one day, Palmyra, Aleppo, Nineveh and the other devastated cities of Syria and Iraq will again serve as symbols of unity and diversity.

The United Nations Security Council has recognized the important links between cultural heritage, peace and security in a landmark resolution passed last year.  The Council condemned the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria and adopted legally binding measures to combat the illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural artefacts from these countries.  This was a rare show of unity from the Council, which had been in a deadly deadlock over Syria.  Now we must build on these major steps, to advance the cause of peace.

Another kind of cultural war erupts periodically in some societies around cultural touchstones, identities and beliefs.  Attempts to persuade can sometimes cross a line into attempts to shut down differing opinions.  University campuses are often at the centre of very heated debate.  Here too, diverse cultures and opinions are signs of a flourishing community.  Universities need to be places where we can listen to each other, and each other’s ideas, in peace.  There is nothing more important than preserving respect for dialogue, debate, and yes, disagreement.  When this respect is lost, deeper damage can be done.

I know university presidents are keenly aware of your responsibility to foster public dialogue.  I congratulate you on your success in staying at the forefront of intellectual challenge and change.  In the Internet age, universities need passionate debate on campus to remain relevant.  I hope the young men and women here will bring that passion with you into the world beyond your studies.

The world is at a critical juncture.  We need the energy and idealism of young people to tackle major threats to human well-being.  Climate change is an intergenerational injustice.  The older generation has not cared for the planet that young people will inherit.

Even in some of the wealthiest countries, nearly half of young adults are unemployed.  Conflict is creating the highest number of displaced people since the Second World War.  Half of them are children.  Some 600 million young people live in countries that are fragile or war-torn.

The United Nations is responding to these problems, but we need the engagement of young men and women to multiply our efforts.  All world leaders agreed last September on the ambitious new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to end poverty, hunger and preventable disease and to enable all people around the world to live in dignity and peace on a healthy planet.

The Agenda is based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include clear targets for education, gender equality and decent work for all.  We are now in the first year of implementation.  I hope young men and women will hold Governments accountable for their promises, and help to achieve them.

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit that I am convening in Istanbul on 23 and 24 May will consider the root causes of conflict and displacement, how we can better protect civilians and how we can meet the needs of unprecedented numbers of people.  The United Nations will also hold a Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on 19 September, one day before the opening of the annual General Debate.

To better represent the interests of young people, I appointed the first-ever Youth Envoy at the United Nations, Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi, when he was 28 years old.  Ahmad is connecting the United Nations to young people and young people to the United Nations.  We are also bringing young people to the heart of global diplomacy.

Last December, the Security Council adopted resolution 2250 [2015] on youth, peace and security, finally giving young people a recognized place in peace negotiations.  For far too long, young people have been considered good enough to fight wars, but not to make peace.  Resolution 2250 [2015] is our commitment to address this injustice and give young people the voice they deserve.

Finally, young people are already leading on climate action.  Yale sent 100 student experts to Paris last year to support the hard-won Climate Change agreement.  I commend Yale for being the first university to join the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition.

I have been urging pension funds, insurance companies and others to start decarbonizing their portfolios, and shifting towards greener investments.  Yale has shown great leadership in this area.  Shareholders are calling on companies they invest in to disclose climate risk.  A growing number of corporations are speaking up in favour of carbon pricing.

I encourage Yale to be an even bigger part of the transition to a safer, healthier, low-carbon future.  The path to prosperity is clear and we should all do what we can to put the world on more sustainable footing.  I am encouraged by the strong political momentum from more than 130 countries that have confirmed their intention to sign the Paris Agreement at United Nations Headquarters in New York on 22 April.

There is a Syrian saying:  without the old, there is nothing new.  Without a historical context, we cannot make sense of our world or build a common future.  Universities have a critical role in preserving and sharing knowledge, and instilling respect for cultural heritage and diversity.  You are training the next generation of cultural curators and leaders.

Academics of all disciplines know that without open debate, research stagnates and progress slows to a standstill.  Above all, you understand the critical link between culture and human development.  I urge you lead a global movement to promote our diverse cultural heritage for future generations.  Engage your colleagues, your friends, your students, your teachers.  Preserving the world’s priceless cultural heritage is a task for all of us.

Thank you, and I wish you an interesting and fruitful colloquium.

For information media. Not an official record.