Cultural Heritage: A Powerful Unifying Force at Risk Like Never Before

Rubble fills Sharia al-Sweiqa, inside the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site - See more at: https://blogs.state.gov/stories/2015/06/10/cultural-heritage-powerful-unifying-force-risk-never#sthash.x1Jm95mQ.dpuf
Rubble fills Sharia al-Sweiqa, inside the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site

In many ways, cultural heritage defines what it means to be human.  It is a tangible reminder of the beauty and accomplishment of the ancient civilizations, our common origins, and our shared history and identity.  It inspires a sense of belonging and is a source of pride.  Culture has the exceptional potential to be used as a tool for expression and peaceful cooperation, as it reminds us of the contributions and experiences of humanity.

However, extremist groups are destroying and looting irreplaceable cultural property in order to intimidate and humiliate populations, and looted artifacts have become a significant source of income for terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL’s destruction of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site of Hatra, Iraq and Assyrian-era antiquities has focused the attention of the international community on ISIL’s barbarous efforts to destroy cultural heritage in the region.

With such rich history and identity at risk of elimination, the United States and UNESCO are leading efforts to protect antiquities, monuments and sites that hold universal value for mankind. For both the United States and the UN, preserving diverse cultural heritage is a critical step toward reconstruction, reconciliation, and building civil society.

The United States – Dedicated to Preserving Irreplaceable Heritage

The United States strongly supported UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which targets the ability of terrorist groups such as ISIL to raise and move funds in support of their nefarious activities. The resolution requires all Member States to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items illegally removed from Iraq and Syria, and calls upon agencies like UNESCO and Interpol to assist Member States in fulfilling this obligation.  The United States also co-sponsored the UN General Assembly Resolution “Saving the Cultural Heritage of Iraq,” which condemned the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and called for its protection, including through implementation and strengthening of UNESCO’s Emergency Response Action Plan on Iraq.

In addition, the State Department, through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, has invested more than three million dollars in emergency stabilization and conservation at the site of ancient Babylon in Iraq and other important cultural heritage sites in the region, including UNESCO World Heritage sites. For years, the United States has supported the preservation of cultural property and heritage, understanding its power in economic revitalization and post-conflict recovery.

On June 1 in Paris, the United States and UNESCO co-hosted a roundtable of stakeholders, including private sector art collector and dealer representatives, to discuss the looting of antiquities and steps we can take together to stem the illicit trade of objects.

Also in Paris, on June 2nd, Deputy Secretary Blinken led the U.S. delegation to the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Ministerial, whose partners are committed “to the goals of eliminating the threat by ISIL.”  Coalition members expressed their support to UNESCO’s action plans for safeguarding cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, the UNESCO resolution on culture in conflict areas, the #Unite4Heritage campaign and the implementation of UNSC resolution 2199.

UNESCO and the History of Cultural Preservation

For the past 60 years, UNESCO has been committed to safeguarding heritage through advocating for cultural development, implementing clear policies, encouraging cultural pluralism, and creating a global platform for international cooperation. UNESCO has spearheaded treaties, campaigns, and movements to promote and protect culture, beginning with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  As a response to the massive destruction of cultural heritage during World War II, the Convention was the first internationally supported treaty that focused on preserving sites and objects of universal value.  Since then, several treaties have been negotiated under the auspices of UNESCO that highlight the importance of fostering cultural heritage and diversity, such as the World Heritage Convention, which focuses on the preservation of cultural sites and the conservation of nature.

Recently, UNESCO launched its #Unite4Heritage campaign which draws support for the protection of artifacts and sites in areas threatened by extremists. UNESCO is working with partners such as armed forces, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, museums, leading auction houses and governments to weaken the black market trade of cultural objects and to promote the “power of culture.”

Culture has the potential to link communities beyond a country’s borders.  It has the power to promote diplomacy, connect societies, and foster tolerance and understanding. Now, more than ever, we must continue to protect cultural heritage from malevolent destruction and armed conflict, in order to preserve this irreplaceable force for international cooperation and peace.

About the Author: Sheba Crocker serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. For updates from the Assistant Secretary follow

By: Sheba Crocker

About the Author: Sheba Crocker serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.

Source: U.S Department of State

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