On 2 April 2015, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, gave a lecture at Sciences Po’ in Paris, entitled “The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria: a Peace and Security Issue.” Dean Ghassan Salamé of the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po (PISA) chaired the discussion.
Speaking to a large assembly of students and professors, in the presence of many Ambassadors, the Director-General highlighted recent extremist attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia that have directly targeted culture. She stressed the importance of understanding the deliberate nature of these attacks and the kind of warfare waged by these extremist groups.
“Violent extremists forbid girls to go to school, they kill journalists, they vandalize museums and libraries, and they burn their books. They target everything that sustains free thinking and freedom of opinion,” said the Director-General.
“We can see how terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy of terror to destabilize and manipulate populations so that they can assure their own domination – we can see how they use social media to spread more fear, to weaken social cohesion and confidence.
Faced with this situation, UNESCO is fully mobilized to respond in close cooperation with Member States, neighbouring countries, and particularly the government of Iraq,” continued Irina Bokova.
“This is far from more than a cultural tragedy -- it is a security issue,” she declared.
The Director-General went on to highlight the importance of culture any response to these groups.
“This is not something for Governments or the military forces – the challenge of fanaticism cannot be beaten just by the hard power of armies. It must be fought by the weapons of the minds -- by more culture, by more tolerance, by more knowledge.”
She went on to highlight UNESCO’s advocacy in getting Security Council resolution 2199 passed, which forbids the illicit trade in cultural objects originating from Syria. She also spoke of her two recent visits to Iraq to show support and solidarity for the Iraqi people.
The Director-General also spoke of the #Unite4Heritage Campaign that was recently launched in Iraq with students at the University of Bagdad.
“I invite all students of Science Po to join this campaign, on Twitter, on Facebook and elsewhere, to claim this heritage as their own, and to say that we are all sons and daughters of the Assyrian, Sumerian and Mesopotamian cultures.”
The Director-General closed her lecture with a call for the international community to join forces in the face of violent extremist -- “It is vital we all understand that what unites us is stronger than our differences.”
“We have saved the temples of Egypt and rebuilt the Mostar Bridge, and we are helping to rebuild the mausoleums of Mali. We must step up our actions so that one day, in the nearest possible future, we can rebuild the cultural heritage of Iraq, together with the identity and confidence of its people.”