The protection of cultural heritage highlighted during UN Human Rights Council

13 March 2018

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Al Kidr’s sanctuary, Iraq
© Juma’a Hussien Zboon

Damage to cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, of any people, constitutes damage to the cultural heritage of humanity as a whole.  This is especially true because such damage may have a detrimental and irreversible impact on the enjoyment of cultural rights, in particular the right to take part in cultural life.

To raise awareness of these issues, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Iraq to the United Nations office in Geneva, with support from UNESCO, organized a panel discussion on cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage on 7 March 2018, in the framework of the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

H.E. Ambassador Mouayed Saleh (Iraq), recalled the importance of Iraqi cultural heritage in a historical context, referring to Iraq as a birthplace and crossroad of ancient civilizations.  He stressed that the many crimes committed against the Iraqi cultural heritage in recent years, including to museums, places of worship and archaeological sites where destruction and looting occurred, means that people can no longer access and appreciate much of Iraq’s rich heritage. “The situation is dire, especially in cities like Mosul, where terrorists have been stealing and selling cultural artifacts as a means to finance their operations,” he said.  

Marc-André Renold, Chairholder of UNESCO’s Chair in International Law of Cultural Property, University of Geneva, moderated the event, and with Roger Matthews, University of Reading (UK) and President of RASHID International, shed light on the legal and social implications of destruction, damage, looting and trafficking of cultural heritage, particularly during conflict situations.  They pointed to instruments and frameworks in place that foster local, national and international cooperation fundamental to protecting cultural heritage.  UNESCO’s Culture Conventions, including the 1954 Convention and its Protocols for protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict, the 1970 Convention fighting against illicit trafficking in cultural objects, as well as UNESCO’s programme and action specific to culture in emergencies were highlighted.

Further to protecting cultural heritage, the public’s right to access this heritage is recognized by the international community; cultural heritage is fundamental to dialogue and reconciliation, identity, knowledge sharing and development.  H.E. Ambassador George C. Kasoulides (Cyprus) commented on actions and Resolutions from both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council that address this, and that aim to foster cooperation among States on behalf of cultural heritage and cultural rights. For example, Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/RES/33/20 calls on all States to respect, promote and protect the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, including the ability to access and enjoy cultural heritage.  It further urges all parties to armed conflicts to refrain from any unlawful military use or targeting of cultural property and calls for enhanced international cooperation in preventing looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects.