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Preserving Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict

October 25, 2017

Law enforcement agents, lawyers, and archaeologists have warned that cultural heritage is being used as a terrorist financing tool and weapon of war throughout Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Moreover, the problem will not go away with the recent defeats suffered by Daesh (ISIS), and may in fact be entering a dangerous new phase.

Protecting cultural heritage - looted antiquities

“It’s business as usual,” said Dr. Amr al-Azm, a Syrian archaeologist, describing the region’s trade in conflict antiquities. While looters may have changed allegiances from Daesh to other armed forces, an active traffic continues, and will not stop with the recent liberation of Raqqa by Syrian Democratic Forces. Dr. Amr al-Azm is  a Board Member at The Day After Project, an Antiquities Coalition partner, which is working to support democratic transition in Syria.

He and other leading experts were speaking at “Preserving Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict,” a three-day conference held at Colgate University to explore diplomatic, policy, and legal solutions to the current crisis. The United States has an important role to play in this fight, according to organizer Dr. Michael Danti, who served on the Antiquities Coalition’s #CultureUnderThreat Task Force. “The art market is the largest lawful unregulated market,” said Danti, and it is centered in New York. By closing the American art market to so-called “blood antiquities,” the United States can do much to shut down the global traffic.

Protecting cultural heritage - palmyra

“Our laws and policy toward cultural racketeering are failing Iraq and Syria,” said Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, who noted that the international community has not learned lessons from the Cambodian Civil War and other earlier conflicts. She called on all countries to shut their borders to cultural objects from all countries in crisis—not just Iraq and Syria—but also Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. She additionally urged the international community to incorporate cultural heritage preservation into all peacekeeping mandates and training, as well as post-conflict planning and recovery trust funds, and to prosecute crimes against culture along with other atrocity crimes.  

Dr. al-Azm directly addressed those who claimed heritage should not be prioritized during conflict, given the immense humanitarian crisis, saying the two issues were interconnected. “People without their history, without their culture, are lost,” he said. “You have people on both sides of the conflict risking their lives to save this heritage at risk. Because this is not just saving the past, it is about saving the future for Syria, too.”

To learn more about the Colgate Conference, visit http://calendar.colgate.edu/Preserving-Cultural-Heritage-in-Times-of-Conflict.