A call to save Iraq’s cultural heritage

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© UNESCO

Iraq’s cultural heritage is under threat and in urgent need of protection, concluded participants at a meeting held on September 29 at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters. The event was organised by the delegations of France and Iraq to UNESCO.

The meeting was opened by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO and the Ambassadors and Permanent Delegates of France and Iraq to UNESCO, respectively Philippe Lalliot and Mahmoud Al-Mullakhalaf. They reviewed the state of Iraq’s cultural heritage before opening discussion on how to best protect it.

The need for action is paramount. Iraqi cultural sites, like Jonah’s Tomb in Mosul, Assyrian Palaces, churches and other monuments, are being destroyed and looted. Concerns are mounting that pillaged goods will be trafficked internationally. Protecting this heritage, even in conflict, is imperative, insisted the participants.

“We may feel uneasy about denouncing crimes against heritage when horrifying acts of violence are being committed against people. Is it right to be concerned about cultural cleansing when the dead are being counted in the tens of thousands? Yes, absolutely,” said Ambassador Lalliot. “Because the destruction of heritage that carries with it the identity of a people and the history of a country cannot be considered as collateral or secondary damage that we can live with. It is on par with the destruction of human lives.”

The conflict underway, is also a conflict against culture, and, by extension, against the identity of a people.

“Islamic, Christian, Kurdish and Jewish  heritage, among others, is being intentionally destroyed or attacked in what is clearly a form of cultural cleansing,” warned Irina Bokova. “We are gravely concerned about scale of traffic in cultural goods, from which Iraq has already greatly suffered over the past decade.”

There are no statistics on this traffic. However, there are fears that many statues and other objects may have already fallen into the hands of a few unscrupulous art dealers.

Qais Hussein Rashied, Director of the Baghdad Museum, confirmed that one of the Islamic extremist groups in Iraq “has undertaken digs to sell (objects) in Europe and Asia via middlemen in neighbouring countries.” “These sales are financing terrorism,” he said, adding that some priceless works - often over 2,000 years old - had already left the country.

“Protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage must be part of the effort to consolidate peace,” said Mahmoud Al-Mullakhalaf, who called on all States Parties to UNESCO’s Conventions, including the 1954 convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, the 1970 convention on illicit traffic of cultural goods, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention “to fight terrorism, defeat it and help us to restore our heritage.”

A concerted response is required to face the threats, agreed the participants. They welcomed the initiatives taken over the past few months by UNESCO to alert authorities and the public about the menace facing Iraq’s cultural heritage and to mobilize the international community.

In collaboration with the Iraqi authorities, UNESCO has called for utmost vigilance from the world’s great museums, the art market, Interpol and other partner organizations in the fight against illicit traffic and has shared information relevant to Iraq’s cultural heritage with all parties involved in air strikes.

UNESCO has also requested that the Security Council adopt a resolution to outlaw all commerce of Iraqi and Syrian cultural goods.

Last 17 July, UNESCO brought together leading experts and partners to launch an Action Plan for the Safeguarding of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

Finally, last 22 September, the Director-General, alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry, participated in an event at the Metropolitan Museum in New York entitled Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria, highlighting the efforts being made to protect it.