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Protecting Cultural Heritage From Terrorism And Mass Atrocities: Links And Common Responsibilities

September 26, 2017

Peter HerdrichPeter Herdrich has led worldwide media, cultural affairs, and educational institutions. He is the Co-founder of The Antiquities Coalition and co-Principal Investigator on the Digital Library of the Middle East, a project of the Antiquities Coalition and the Council on Library and Information Resources funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Whiting Foundation.

On September 21, 2017, at the United Nations General Assembly meetings, international diplomats, NGO representatives, and experts convened at the UN for a program called Protecting Cultural Heritage From Terrorism And Mass Atrocities: Links And Common Responsibilities. The event hosts were the European Union Delegation to the UN, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN, UNESCO, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. This is the third consecutive year that the Antiquities Coalition has received an invitation to participate in UNGA cultural heritage preservation events.

These UN gatherings are commonly called “High-Level events” and with the General Assembly in session, there were a number of influential diplomats and experts in attendance. Their new perspectives are greatly welcomed, particularly for observers who attend UN cultural heritage events regularly. The key is to listen for surprises, new directions, and aborning initiatives.

The opening of the event featured comment on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2347 in support of cultural heritage that was unanimously supported by the Security Council in March and sponsored by Italy and France. Speakers including Angelino Alfano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy; Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission; Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO; and Yuri Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC.They spoke about legal efforts, including the International Court of Justice’s successful prosecution of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for a war crime in Mali for destroying mausoleums, manuscripts, and a mosque; looting and illicit trafficking; terrorism finance; security; and human rights. Ms. Mogherini pointed out the EU now has a strategy on cultural heritage in place. “For too long, cultural heritage preservation was a side mission,” she said, and now it is at the heart of European policy. Director General Bokova said that UNESCO is preparing the implementation report for Resolution 2347. And Foreign Minister Alfano stated, “Culture is much more powerful than bombs.”

The United Nations uses the term “intervention” to describe speaker statements at these meetings and a new panel, diplomats, and experts contributed.

Dr. Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, reported that the terrorist Al-Mahdi has also been ordered to pay £2.5M as reparations. Al-Mahdi, a former teacher, is serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Two important themes emerged from law enforcement and counterterrorism experts. Gilles de Kerchove, the Counter-terrorism Coordinator for the European Union, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, the leader of the Italian Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Command, and Emmanuel Roux, the special representative of INTERPOL to the UN all stated the need for specialized cultural heritage law enforcement teams in all countries. All three also mentioned the value of databases of cultural heritage material to law enforcement, both objects that are stolen and missing and of inventories and documentation of all types of cultural heritage collections. When discussing the importance of photographic documentation and description of objects, Roux said, “You can’t put a ghost on a database. You have to put data on a database.”

This is especially important to the Antiquities Coalition. Our Digital Library of the Middle East project with the Council on Library and Information Resources proposes a database of online collections records with descriptions, documentation, and online access. It has inherent value for security and risks management, as Katie Paul’s terrific infographic makes clear.

Dr. James Cuno, the President of The J. Paul Getty Trust, complemented the UN on the successful passage of Resolution 2347 and introduced a new issue paper on cultural heritage preservation. Dr. Cuno was joined by Dr. Thomas Weiss of the CUNY Graduate Center and author, along with Nina Connelly, of Protecting Cultural Heritage in Zones of Armed Conflict.

Finally, an observation about constancy. There are clearly leaders among the many nations who care deeply about cultural heritage preservation, with event host Italy as a prime example, along with others. As an attendee at almost all UN events over the last years about this field, I observe that Cyprus is as dedicated as any country to this important issue. The Cypriots always attend High-level events and the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Ioannis Kasoulidis, attended the UN program. He spoke eloquently about the abiding commitment of the government and people of the small, economically challenged Mediterranean country to its cultural heritage and history. When the Antiquities Coalition did our first presentation ever in New York City, about Cambodia, the consul general of Cyprus attended. So, allow me a personal editorial note and to say Σας ευχαριστώ και μπράβο to our colleagues from Cyprus for your unshakable commitment.