UNESCO and Partners stand against Cultural Cleansing and Violent Extremism

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© UNESCO/Nora Houguenade
06 November 2017

On the occasion of UNESCO’s General Conference, an international high-level panel on 6 November 2017, brought together Ministers from Iraq and Mali, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and international experts to strengthen cooperation in response to cultural cleansing and violent extremism.

Opening the panel, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, highlighted the key role of heritage protection in forging new strategies for peace and social cohesion in situations of conflict.

“Violent extremists target culture because they know that cultural heritage is a force for resilience. They attack heritage and persecute communities in an overall strategy of ‘cultural cleansing’, because they know the power of culture to delegitimize their claims and false promises. In the face of this threat, we must respond with the ‘hard power’ of military measures. This also calls for the ‘soft power’ of culture and the transmission of history, as a moral and intellectual shield against hatred,” she said.

“Extremists have destroyed many archaeological sites, religious buildings, museums and libraries across Iraq and communities have been deeply affected by this. Rebuilding this cultural heritage is the way for people to leave behind what they have suffered and open a new door; it is essential to national and local reconciliation”, said Faryad Rawandozi, Minister of Culture of Iraq.

“The attacks on Mali’s cultural heritage, whether mausoleum or ancient manuscript, were attacks on our beliefs and way of life in an attempt to undermine us. Our response is to engage everyone in safeguarding, revitalization, rehabilitation and education for the future of Timbuktu”, stressed N’diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, Minister of Culture of Mali.

Ms Bokova also underscored recent, historic progress in including heritage protection in strategies for peace and security, recalling the adoption of major UN Security Council resolutions (2199, 2347, 2354 and 2379) on the role of heritage protection in the event of armed conflict.

The Director-General reiterated the importance of UNESCO’s cooperation with the ICC, referring to the conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the destruction of heritage in Timbuktu, the first ICC trial that qualified the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda noted the links between dignity, human rights and cultural heritage and the importance of accountability for crimes against cultural heritage. “When cultural property or buildings dedicated to religion and education are attacked, the adverse impact can also be devastating for associated rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to education, and even economic rights. These serious crimes need to be addressed through the law and deterrence. At my Office, we are dedicated to do our part strictly within the Rome Statute legal framework”, she stated.

Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, further emphasized the need to ensure the right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage. “This is a human experience, and it is a fundamental human right. People have died defending their cultural heritage. Going forward we need prevention, accountability and inclusive decision-making”, she said.

Mohamed Elmoctar Cissé, Director of the Library of the Manuscripts of Al Aquib in Timbuktu, spoke of his experience under violent extremist occupation in the city in 2012. “We lived under sweeping prohibition.  When the extremists left, we worked to restore our activities and our buildings, and engaged and educated the youth.  Reconstruction efforts have proven essential to the resilience, reconciliation and recovery of people,” he stressed.

The panel was one of a series of events organized under the theme “UNESCO’s Soft Power Today", highlighting the Organization’s use of soft power across its mandate, in response to today’s challenges to sustainable development and peace building. 

On the same day, UNESCO Director-General and ICC Chief Prosecutor signed a Letter of Intent to strengthen cooperation between the two institutions, in the field of heritage protection.

As part of the awareness-raising efforts, UNESCO’s Director-General unveiled a full-size 3D replica of the monumental Lamassu (winged bull) Statue of Nimrud (modern day Iraq), which was destroyed by extremists in 2015. The unveiling took place in the presence of Faryad Rawandozi, Minister of Culture of Iraq, Francesco Rutelli, President of the Incontro di Civiltà Association (Italy) and Vincenza Lomonaco, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Italy to UNESCO, and Chairperson of the Culture Commission of UNESCO's 39th General Conference.

The statue will be displayed at UNESCO Headquarters for the duration of the General Conference, standing as a symbol of the Organization’s commitment to share history and transmit the values it carries to future generations.