On 1 July, 2015, UNESCO Director-General gave a Lecture at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, on “Cultural Heritage: Extremism’s New Target”. The event was chaired by the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth.
“Heritage stands at the frontline of conflict – it must be at the frontline of any strategy for peace,” declared the Director-General, before a packed assembly, highlighting the importance of protecting culture for future reconciliation.
“Culture has always been the victim of war – as collateral damage, from direct targeting, from looting,” said Irina Bokova. “But what we see today is new -- in scale and nature. And this calls for new policies from States, by the international community.”
The Director-General reminded her audience of the 70th anniversary of UNESCO and its creation in London.
“Audacity was the inspiration that gave birth to UNESCO 70 years ago, in the wake of the Second World War. Based in Paris, UNESCO was born here, at the Institute of Civil Engineers,” she said. “I am convinced we need the same audacity today, to counter the new threats of violent extremism and cultural cleansing.”
In response, she underscored UNESCO’s action on four levels: “First, to mitigate risks of destruction and pillaging, through monitoring and capacity-building, second, to fight illicit trafficking, working with neighbouring countries, and international partners, third, to document what has been destroyed and prepare for reconstruction, and fourth, to counter the propaganda of hatred and discord, through new forms of communication.”
The Director-General highlighted here Resolution 2199 adopted by the United Nations Security Council in February, on the financing of terrorism, which recognizes the link between destruction and looting, and whose implementation UNESCO is leading with partners.
“These are new forms of conflict, in what is a global war for hearts and minds,” she said.
“This is why I went to the University of Baghdad in March to launch a global social media campaign --#Unite4Heritage – and the same goals guide the new integrated framework of action UNESCO launched two weeks ago – Empowering Youth to Build Peace – to equip young people with knowledge, skills and values to engage as global citizens, resilient to radicalization and violent extremism.”
An active discussion followed on various dimensions of a full spectrum approach, including on global citizenship education, the actions and mandates of peacekeeping forces, and the prosecution of such war crimes.
“Attacks against culture are more than a cultural issue. This is a security issue and a peacebuilding issue,” said the Director-General, highlighting that this means “reaching beyond the ‘culture box’, to build a broad coalition including actors in the security fields, to craft policies that connect the dots between the humanitarian, the security and the cultural imperatives.”
“Cultural cleansing is an attack against the people of Iraq and Syria -- It is an attack against the humanity we all share.”
She highlighted here the pledge she took to rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu, Mali, and the completion of reconstruction, as a key part of the peace process.
On the same day, the Director-General took part in an expert roundtable organised by the International Security Department at Chatham House, under the theme “Culture on the Frontline: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones”.
The roundtable was chaired by Peter Stone, Professor of Heritage Studies and Head of School of Arts and Cultures at New Castle University, and brought together experts and academics, NGO representatives and officials, including police and armed forces, as well as media, and representatives of auctions houses, for a meeting under the Chatham House Rule.
Discussion ranged across the spectrum, from knowledge management and information sharing, building research and communication, where UNESCO can perform vital roles -- all for more proactive prevention.