Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán: “Trying to safe lost art: UNESCO’s special operations to save cultural heritage in the Middle East”

Zorba with Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán, UNESCO´s Assistant Director-General for Culture

CaptureParis.- What can be done to protect cultural heritage from destruction and pillage in Middle Eastern countries currently in conflict? UNESCO is playing a critical role bringing the international community around this issue, as we could learn from Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán, currently Assistant Director-General for Culture.

Although it’s not alone, Daesh/ISIS is destroying cultural heritage in the Middle East. The level of destruction during the past months and years is a tragedy –the most recent in Yemen (Old City of Sanaa), Iraq (Mosul and Nimrud museums, fortified city of Hatra), Syria (Palmira taken hostage), Libya (many mosques and madrasas), and Tunisia (Bardo museum). What is particularly striking is that heritage destruction and pillage has become an integral part of Daesh, not just an unintended consequence of war. The destruction of monuments and art pieces meets a double goal: it projects power and creates fear, and it serves as a source of revenue. Daesh wants to send a strong message: they are against any world vision alternative to theirs. That includes the West, but also other Muslim sects –which is why many Shia shrines are also being destroyed. But we should not confuse these phenomenon with a “clash of civilizations” since they do not represent the Islamic civilization, only a small part of the Muslim world.

What is UNESCO doing in this regard? Although many imagine UNESCO only in the business of classifying buildings, it in fact undertakes a huge effort of capacity building with customs officials, curators, and art dealers training them to crack down on trafficking. On one hand there are efforts to raise awareness, such as the “United for Heritage” campaign. On the other, there are a series of legal instruments such as the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), which includes preventive measures working with police forces and the enactment of legislation in signatory countries; or the Restitution Committee; and recently Resolution 2199 (February 2015), which condemns the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria.

It is so difficult to intervene directly in the prevention of actual attacks that it becomes imperative to win the hearts and minds of those closer to the scene of the crime. The problem is that part of the population in the countries affected does not feel particularly attached to the endangered heritage. But this is not always the case; in fact, there are many examples of civilians protecting cultural heritage from destruction. From the villagers in Timbuktu (Mali) and Dominican monks in Syria saving manuscripts, to neighbors recovering pieces of art from Baghdad’s museum.

For more on this topic read the Economist article from June 13, 2015.

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