The Executive Board paves the way for stronger UNESCO in the field of cultural heritage protection

The 196th Executive Board of UNESCO adopted a Decision on “Culture in Conflict Areas: a Humanitarian Concern and a Safety Issue. UNESCO’s Role and Responsibilities” on 21 April. Condemning the continuing, deliberate attacks against the cultural heritage of Syria, Iraq and Libya and recognizing that the illicit trafficking of cultural objects may be financing terrorism, the Decision emphasizes UNESCO’s leading role in the protection of cultural heritage and the safeguarding of cultural diversity.

After an impassioned two-hour long debate, the relief among the 58 Members of UNESCO”s Executive Board to UNESCO was palpable. Unanimously adopted by acclamation, Decision 196 EX/29, introduced by Italy and Spain and co-signed by many other members of the Board, aims at strengthening the Organization’s capacities to protect cultural heritage during conflicts, particularly with regard to the deliberate destruction of heritage sites as well as the looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects.

In particular, it asks UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, to initiate a dialogue with Member States, concerned stakeholders and relevant UN agencies on the possible establishment of so-called ‘protected cultural zones’ “around heritage sites of recognized and shared cultural significance”. The concept of ‘protected cultural zones’ was first introduced by the  Director-General at the High-Level International Conference "Heritage and Cultural Diversity at Risk in Iraq and Syria" that took place on 3 December 2014 at the Organization’s Headquarters in Paris. The proposal was supported by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, who considered that due to its recognized shared cultural significance, the Omayyad Mosque of Aleppo, Syria, could have served as a pilot to negotiate ‘freezes’ in the hostilities – important both to de-escalate the conflict and as confidence-building measure that could have fostered dialogue and trust among the conflict parties.

Decision 196 EX/29 further invites the Director-General to strengthen UNESCO’s capacities in order to enhance the protection of “culture in times of armed conflict and transition”, particularly with regard to urgently responding “to cultural emergencies and to fight against illegal traffic of cultural goods”. To do so, the Decision calls for the operationalization of UNESCO’s cultural conventions, particularly of the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Moreover, the adopted Decision recognizes UNESCO’s leading role within the UN system with regard to culture and its protection, be it tangible or intangible. Indeed, it invites the Director-General to enhance this position further, “in order for the cultural dimension to be taken in due consideration to strengthen intercultural dialogue” as well as to allow the Organization to better coordinate the international community’s efforts “in preventing illicit trafficking of cultural properties, protecting heritage and safeguarding cultural diversity in conflict areas and transition countries”.

Lastly, the Decision invites the Director-General “to elaborate a strategy, in partnership with Member States and other relevant actors, on how to reinforce UNESCO’s action for the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural pluralism in the event of armed conflict”.

By linking the destruction of cultural heritage with humanitarian, security and peacebuilding issues, this resolution gives institutional backing to the message UNESCO’s Director-General has been repeating since the increased terrorist threat related to the territorial expansion of ISIS/Daesh in Iraq and Syria last summer: protecting cultural heritage and integrating the cultural dimension in conflict prevention and resolution is more than a cultural emergency – it is a political and security imperative.

The UNESCO Secretariat has immediately started working on the implementation of this Decision, which goes in line with efforts already underway at the initiative of the Director-General, notably the 1 April high level meeting convened to map out the effective implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2199, adopted on 12 February 2015. At that meeting, UNESCO's key partners in protecting cultural heritage agreed to strengthen cooperation and exchange of information in their efforts to improve safeguarding of this heritage in Syria and Iraq. Another high-level meeting is foreseen to take place before the summer break, in order to bring together additional partners and to cover a larger pan of the broad issue that is the protection of cultural heritage and the safeguarding of cultural diversity.