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Cultural barbarians at the gate as war takes its toll

Nearly 60 years ago, the founding members of UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, declared: “Damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”

Surely these words from the Hague Convention are a great statement and ethos we can all support.

But only last month, firebombing turned the 1,000 year-old stone minaret, part of the Umayyad mosque in the centre of Aleppo's ancient walled Old City, into a pile of rubble.


It was the fifth of Syria’s six World Heritage Sites to be damaged in the country’s devastating civil war which has caused 80,000 deaths and made 1.5 million people homeless.

The Assad regime and its opponents in the Free Syrian Army accuse each other of responsibility for the devastation in Aleppo and elsewhere. And, in Syria as in Iraq, anything that military action fails to destroy is booty for looters and profiteers.

Addressing a packed audience at London’s Italian Cultural Institute on Wednesday, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin explained that the Hague Convention was an effort to prevent a repeat of the horrors of World War II.

Bandarin noted that during conflicts there was often “a deliberate destruction of heritage as a symbol of the ‘Other’.”

As examples, he cited German and British bombing during World War II. More recent years have seen the bombing of Dubrovnik (1991); the destruction of Sarajevo’s national library of 1.5 million books (1992); the demolition by the Taliban of Afghanistan’s 1,500-year-old Buddahs of Bamiyan (2001); and the abuse of Iraq’s ancient Babylon as a US army base (2005). Only last year, during fighting in Mali, al-Qaida destroyed a 15th century mosque in Timbuktu.

But what has became of UNESCO’s entirely laudable international effort to protect cultural heritage?  Although Bandarin tried to put a brave face on efforts to instil cultural awareness into military forces, the words “losing battle” spring to mind.

Most shameful for the UK is that the country remains “the most significant military power and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad, not to have ratified this convention”, according to Professor Peter Stone, who is the chair of the Blue Shield heritage protection committee.

And UNESCO has been crippled by a lack of financial support since 2011 when the United States decided to cut funding after UNESCO voted to grant Palestine full membership.

But an even greater threat is the overwhelming power of market forces. In Benghazi, after the ousting of the Gaddafi regime, 8,000 gold and silver artefacts dating back to Roman rule, returned to Libya from Italy 50 years earlier, were stolen by thieves.

During wars, sophisticated criminal networks swing into action, Bandarin said:

The stolen goods market in Dubai is full of objects stolen from Egypt. It’s the same in Syria and Beirut. Organised crime in illicit cultural objects is similar to drugs, weapons and people trafficking and it is worth $6-$8 billion per year.

In papal Rome there was once a saying, “Where the Barbarians failed, the Barbarini succeeded” – referring to the pillaging of ancient monuments by the Vatican and Italian aristocracy.

The vandals of today are merely stepping in the footsteps of states like Britain, the US, Russia, France and Saudi Arabia, who wage war and/or fund belligerent parties around the world.

As Janet Ulph, Professor of Law at Leicester University believes:

The Hague Convention offers respect to individuals and communities, and it makes it clear that the our heritage should not divide people: it is the heritage of mankind and we should all care about and respect heritage objects, wherever we are from.

Unfortunately, these sentiments are honoured more in the breach than in the observance. The major states like Britain and the US set the tone and others follow in the destruction of our common heritage. If ever you needed yet another reason for changing the world, this is it.
Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
31 May 2013

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