The international conference on Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage, organised by the governments of the UAE and France under the auspices of UNESCO and held in Abu Dhabi at the start of the month, has confirmed the creation of a $100 million fund to protect cultural heritage sites from conflict and terrorism.
The new fund will be managed by a foundation in Geneva, and is open to donations from states, non-governmental organizations, and private foundations. France has pledged $30 million and the UAE $15 million, and others seem sure to follow suit. For instance, He Liu Yuzhou, from China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said that his country would support the fund “with contributions that corresponded with China’s status”.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Heritage, in all its diversity, is a source of collective wealth and encourages dialogue. It is a vehicle for closer relations, tolerance and freedom[/perfectpullquote]
The fund will aid in preventative and emergency protective operations, the restoration of damaged cultural property, and increasing border security to prevent antiquities trafficking.
President Hollande also announced that the Louvre would make space available within the museum’s Liévin branch to house antiquities that are at risk due to armed conflict. He urged other museums to provide similar safe havens for occasions when a country cannot protect its cultural property itself.
During the event, representatives from over 40 countries heard panel discussions and presentations ranging from first-hand accounts to policy proposals. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, summarised the goals: “Heritage, in all its diversity, is a source of collective wealth and encourages dialogue. It is a vehicle for closer relations, tolerance and freedom. In an armed conflict situation, heritage is particularly at risk, owing to its inherent vulnerability and tremendous symbolic value.”
One of the more explicit statements came from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who rejected iconoclasm outright: “The destruction of heritage sites by terrorist groups, and illicit trafficking by groups that aim to obliterate the international heritage of humanity, are rejected by all God-given religions and human nature”.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I see this as the starting point of something larger – a renewed commitment for culture, education, human dignity, where the protection of heritage is part and parcel of a global strategy against hatred and extremism[/perfectpullquote]
This may prove to be a particularly significant lead. Some Islamic governments and commentators have been less than enthusiastic in condemning the kind of destruction wrought by fundamentalists in places like Iraq and Mali; while most would not concur with ISIL’s view that ancient icons and architecture are actually haram, many do perceive an imbalance in the West’s reactions that seem to place buildings and monuments above the people who live and often die at their feet.
Speaking at the closing ceremony, UNESCO DG Irina Bokova spoke building a new consensus on treating the deliberate destruction of heritage as a war crime and a key security issue. “The creation of this Fund breaks new ground and I see this as the starting point of something larger – a renewed commitment for culture, education, human dignity, where the protection of heritage is part and parcel of a global strategy against hatred and extremism, to build lasting foundations for peace.”
There’s obviously much to do and the foundation will have its work cut out. Exactly what is at risk, for instance? An ongoing French project to map the cultural sites of Afghanistan in detail suggests a useful first step. Who will police the protection of portable artefacts, and who will collect them for despatch to safe havens? A massive education programme for troops on the ground seems indicated. And how do you preserve massive structures like Palmyra’s Temple of Bel or the statues of Buddha in Bamiyan?
A follow-up conference in 2017 is promised.