The protection of culture and heritage is a humanitarian and security imperative that also paves the path towards resilience, reconciliation and peace, said UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, addressing the International Symposium on “Cultural Heritage at Risk, the Role of Museums in War and Conflict”, held at the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden, on 26 November.
Opening the event, Dr Christian Mühlenbock, Director of the Museum, called for reflection and action both to fight illicit trafficking and to take initiatives that will make a difference in building back peace. Mr Kurt Almqvist, President of the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, stated that "cultural objects under severe threat are part of the universal memory of mankind, if they are lost we lose something of ourselves."
Reflecting on UNESCO's achievements as the Organization marks its 70th anniversary, the Director-General underlined the significance of the 1970 World Heritage Convention. "It represents an extraordinary idea about the outstanding universal value of heritage that unites around a common understanding that is so important for building peace, promoting intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity."
Describing the site of Palmyra as the reflection of a true "dialogue among cultures" with its rich combination of styles and influences, she said it was this shared legacy and memory that has come under attack. “Extremists target museums, monuments and other cultural icons for what they represent (…). They want to erase all trace of history and identity,” declared the Director-General. “This is what I call cultural cleansing.”
“UNESCO is working on all fronts to enhance the protection of our shared heritage,” she continued. “Beyond hard power, defeating violent extremism calls for new ways of acting to get at the root causes of sectarianism and prevent hatred."
"Museums play a vital role here, to promote a vision of humanity united around its heritage. They are key for capacity building, advocacy and passing a strong message on the urgent need to put a stop to illicit trafficking, which is financing terrorism."
She gave an overview of action so far, starting with strong legal foundations, including the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 banning cultural trade from Iraq and Syria, the launch of the Global Coalition Unite for Heritage last June, and joining forces with ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) to produce self-help guidance materials, to secure the endangered cultural heritage collections held by museums. She noted that over 35 States have taken action to strengthen legislation and coordination mechanisms since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2199.
“We must build stronger cooperation, among all partners, bringing together INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, the International Council of Museums and its Red Lists, and with many others to link the humanitarian, cultural and security dimensions,” declared Irina Bokova.
This is the spirit of the new strategy adopted by UNESCO Member States, to strengthen action to protect culture and promote cultural pluralism during armed conflict, and of UNESCO’s new international Recommendation on the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections, their Diversity and their Role in Society.
The Director-General stressed the central role of culture and heritage in changing the narrative and countering violent extremism, including through education. 'We need culture and heritage to build self-confidence, resilience and understanding," she said, noting this was also the spirit of the #unite4heritage campaign launched at the University of Baghdad last March.