Time Is Of The Essence To Save Ancient Syrian Sites, And The UN Is Considering ‘Monuments Men’

The rebel-claimed bombing in May 2014 in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.
The rebel-claimed bombing in May 2014 in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SHAAM NEWS NETWORK VIA AP VIDEO

UNESCO is considering ways in which it can ensure that cultural heritage sites are protected during armed conflicts. A proposal authorizing such a program will be voted on next week, but UNESCO officials told ThinkProgress that it might not be too far off from the work of “The Monuments Men” as depicted by the 2014 Hollywood movie.

“It might be possible to envisage a situation where international peacekeeping forces might include specific unit tasked with the protection of cultural heritage,” Giovanni Boccardi, the Chief of UNESCO’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit said in a phone interview. “This is more or less the kind of scenario you saw in the movie, ‘The Monuments Men,’ where the allied forces in Italy included people embedded into the military hierarchy who were responsible for the conservation of some cultural heritage assets.”

The general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. Islamic State militants beheaded 81-year-old looking after the ancient ruins of Palmyra, in August 2015.CREDIT: SANA VIA AP
The general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. Islamic State militants beheaded 81-year-old looking after the ancient ruins of Palmyra, in August 2015.CREDIT: SANA VIA AP

Directed by George Clooney, the movie showed American and European antiquities experts and museum curators attempt to salvage works confiscated from Jewish homes and galleries by Nazi soldiers. As in that portrayal, however, UNESCO will likely only deploy teams of so-called “cultural blue helmets” in areas where the United Nations has authorized and deployed peacekeepers.

It might be too late to save important heritage sites from the conflict raging across Iraq and Syria, where some the oldest civilizations in the world took root.

Time is of the essence to salvage what’s left of the ancient city of Palmyra. The Syrian site was partially destroyed by ISIS fighters in October and bombed by Russian forces last week. A Syrian professor and antiquities expert who has been called “Syria’s chief Monuments Man” warned on Thursday that the ruins could be totally flattened within six months if the international community fails to effectively intervene.

As Boccardi explained, however, any efforts taken by UNESCO to protect heritage sites will be part of broader U.N. peacekeeping efforts that will have to be authorized by the international organization’s Security Council.

“In order to prevent the destruction of heritage sites in Palmyra by the Islamic State or similar groups you would have to be there and fight them so you’ll have to have boots on the ground and engage into a conflict with them,” he said. “Frankly speaking, at the moment, I have no idea if this is possible or conceivable.”

Refuting some early critiques made by experts to ThinkProgress that the UNESCO provision would seek to safeguard antiquities while leaving people to fend for themselves, Boccardi said his agency is developing a proposal to operate alongside broader efforts to promote safety and security for people in conflict zones.

To him, preserving heritage sites is part and parcel of protecting people. He told ThinkProgress that the destruction of culture is often a precursor to the genocide of a people:

It is not the case that you have to choose between protecting people and protecting their culture. Very often, those who attack culture also attack people and vice versa. Many destructions of monuments or religious places or the burning of books or the killing of archeologists, or school teachers, or journalists have been perpetrated as a tool of war to intimidate people or make them leave the country or impose totalitarian ideologies on them and eventually dominate them. There is a very close link between so-called ‘cultural emergencies’ and humanitarian or security emergencies. We [believe] that by safeguarding heritage sites, we are not just addressing a secondary issue, a sort of luxury for antiquarians or art histories, but we are contributing to peace, stability, security, and the future sustainable development of those populations affected by war. There is no real distinction between the two areas and in many cases it the people themselves who live I those areas that want the international community to pay more attention and to have them safeguarding their heritage which for them is critical to maintain a sense of identity and hope for the future. This is what we have experienced every time.

Source: Think Progress

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