Protecting cultural heritage – raising the flag with the United Kingdom

On 27 October, UNESCO Director-General addressed the Forum for New Diplomacy on “The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict: Challenges and Threats”, hosted by the Ismaili Centre in London.

The event was co-organized by the Académie Diplomatique Internationale, at the initiative of its President His Highness the Aga Khan and its Director-General, Ambassador Jean-Claude Cousseran, and the International New York Times, in the presence of its Vice President Mr. Achilles Tsaltas.

In conversation with Serge SchmemannMember of the Editorial Board, The International New York Times, the Director-General made a presentation on the current challenges facing the Arab Region through the ongoing systematic and deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. 

Her presentation was followed by an interactive session of questions and answers with the audience in attendance.

“What we are seeing today is new, in scale and nature. We see the deployment of a strategy of what I call cultural cleansing. I believe this calls for new policies by States and the international community,” declared the Director-General. "‎Cultural cleansing seeks to eliminate all sources of diversity and pluralism in order to impose a single, exclusive vision of society and humanity.” 

The Director-General explained that cultural cleansing is tearing the fabric of society in Iraq and Syria, weakening sources of identity, memory and belonging “ devastating individuals and communities, and undermining possibilities for future dialogue, reconciliation and peacebuilding,” she said.

Before an audience of some 200 people representing the Ismaili community, scholars, researchers, journalists, as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps and of the House of Lords, Irina Bokova underlined that the unprecedented scale of destruction, combined with the persecution of ethnic, cultural and religious communities, is part of a comprehensive strategy of terrorists aimed at erasing cultures and cultural diversity in the Arab region, marked by an ancestral multi-faceted tradition of peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups and layers of history that have carved the region.

 “The destruction of culture is designed to destroy sources of belonging and to weaken grounds for renewal,"‎ declared Irina Bokova.

Referring to the need to address this large scale destruction of cultural heritage in conjunction with the humanitarian and security crisis, Irina Bokova stated that cultural cleansing and the refugee crisis become part of a security and peacebuilding imperative which call for new ways of thinking and acting. 

The Director-General highlighted the importance of UNESCO’s soft power to counter violent extremism, and in this context, she underlined the importance of putting education forward as a force for peace highlighting the recent adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, which features a specific goal for education led forward by UNESCO and other intergovernmental partners. 

The Director-General emphasized the role of global citizenship education to counter youth marginalization and radicalization, as well as hate speech online and offline. She also informed the audience about UNESCO’s recently published teachers manual providing guidelines to educators in order to address discrimination and intolerance in schools, as well as to teach the value of cultural diversity and enhance cultural literacy through the teaching of history and humanities.

The Forum for New Diplomacy features leading figures in politics, business and civil society in discussion with senior editors and columnists from The New York Times about emerging dynamics in global affairs. The Forum provides an ongoing opportunity for exploring “new diplomacy” with a particular emphasis on innovative approaches to effecting change in international relations.

On the same day, the Director-General met with the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Mr Kamalesh Sharma during which they discussed common priorities for the sustainable development agenda notably in the face of increasingly fragmented societies and the overwhelming development of communication and information technologies and their related impact on societies across the world. 

Secretary-General Sharma referred to the “absolute atomization of communications” and the need “to value and respect multiple identities and the richness of it”. 

In that context, he referred to the commonwealths priority beneficiaries youth and women and the need to address education and media challenges.  He further shared the outcome of the Commonwealth Youth Network counting some 3000 youths, focusing on youth engagement through communication and information as well as on issues relating to sustainable development including climate change.  

The Director-General informed the Secretary-General about the challenges ahead in the implementation of SDG4 on education, in particular with regard to the coordination of the different actors and the concerted monitoring  and implementation among the different  partners.

  Irina Bokova also shared the successful outcome of UNESCO’s advocacy with regard to the links between culture and sustainable development in the post-2015 Agenda, highlighting the contribution of culture to reducing poverty, creating jobs and sustaining innovation and the creative sector. 

 In ending, they both agreed to accelerate the finalization of the partnership agreement between UNESCO and the Commonwealth in early 2016.  

The Director-General also met with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DFID), Baroness Verma. 

The meeting took place in the presence of H.E. Mr. Matthew Sudders, Ambassador Permanent Delegate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to UNESCO‎. 

The Director-General shared UNESCO’s progress in its reform agenda, focusing in particular on cost efficiency and effective programme delivery.  She stressed the recent examination by UNESCO’s Executive Board of a number of audit reports and evaluations produced by UNESCO’s Internal Oversight, as well as the External Auditor’s report, on the implementation of programme priorities, including alos administrative and financial mechanisms and tools, and the recently adopted plan of action to invest in efficient programme delivery.  

The Director-General emphasized new challenges ahead for the Organization following the recent adoption by the UN General Assembly of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, in particular with regard to the goal pertaining to education, as well as the privileged role of UNESCO as a specialized agency in providing leadership for its implementation. 

 She further emphasized recent achievements in girls education through the mobilization of a number of private partners and funding.  

Baroness Verma referred to the current Multilateral Aid Review conducted by DFID in which transparency and governance constitute the “game changer” and the need to respond to new emerging economies with new systems that call for greater adaption of international organizations.  

While referring to the challenge of measuring qualitative objectives such as fostering intercultural dialogue and freedom of expression, the Director-General confirmed her determination to deliver on the relevance of UNESCO’s mandate based on clearly established evidence.  

Highlighting the need to address gaps and challenges of working in synergy with other international partners to accelerate goals and improve skills in a well concerted and collective effort, Baroness Verma stated that “leading is important but measuring the outcomes of leadership is paramount”. 

The Director-General reaffirmed her determination to pursue the reform agenda of the Organization, while leading in its core mandate.