On the initiative of French president François Hollande and Abu Dhabi crown prince sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, an International Conference for the Protection of Endangered Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Areas (ICPECHACA) was held late last week under the patronage of UNESCO in Abu Dhabi.
The two-day Conference brought together heads of state and ministers from over 40 countries affected by heritage loss due to armed conflicts, alongside key players involved in the field of heritage preservation, international public and private institutions, museums and private donors engaged in the field of cultural heritage, as well as experts working in the field.
After various speeches, commentaries and presentations, the Conference launched a Declaration on the Protection of Endangered Heritage that endorsed the creation of a new International Fund for the Protection of Heritage with an initial contribution by France of US$30 million and the objective to collect US$100 million in the future. It also recommended a follow-up conference in 2017 to help assess the implementation of the initiatives outlined in the Abu Dhabi Declaration.
According to a UNESCO press release, Hollande said that the “Fund will provide much-needed resources to protect heritage under attack and will be managed in close collaboration with UNESCO and respect UNESCO Cultural Conventions and international norms.”
“One year ago, we adopted the Paris Climate Agreement at the COP21 Conference for the preservation of our planet and for future generations. Today, we adopt this Abu Dhabi Declaration, with concrete measures and new tools to protect the legacy of our ancestors. This is a call to action, as there is no greater responsibility than that of building bridges between the past and the future of humanity,” Hollande said.
UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said that “over recent years, we have built a new cultural landscape, a new approach for the protection of heritage as a key security issue. This initiative and the creation of this Fund break new ground. It sends a powerful signal of hope, and I see this as the starting point of something larger – a new commitment for culture, education and human dignity.”
Bokova highlighted UNESCO’s achievements in Mali and other countries as well as the importance of a coordinated approach for the safeguarding of heritage. She noted that the Conference would reinforce international efforts to prevent, to respond, and to rehabilitate heritage after destruction and was testimony to the power of culture to unite.
"The cultural cleansing we have seen in the Middle East has affected people everywhere, and UNESCO is fully mobilised, catalysing a global movement for heritage. Together, we are building a new cultural landscape, a new approach to protect culture for peace and security. The protection of heritage cannot be delinked from the protection of human life, and it cannot wait,” Bokova said.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan recalled the importance of culture to building resilient societies at the Conference. “The world has a shared responsibility for protecting human cultural heritage,” he said, calling on participants to strengthen commitments against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, which was weakening identities and contributing to the financing of terrorism.
Among the participants at the Conference were Kuwaiti emir sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, prime minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj, and the prime ministers of Senegal and Greece. Omani minister of foreign affairs Yousuf bin Alawi was among the attendees, as well as the Aga Khan, head of the Ismaili Muslims.
“I am personally very glad that finally the political players are giving enough attention to cultural heritage preservation,” Monica Hanna, a professor at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Cairo, told the Weekly, adding that it was good that France was spearheading such efforts.
She said she hoped more states would join with their expertise and local efforts, but pointed out that some may suspect the western interest in cultural heritage preservation efforts.
She added that many end-market countries in the heritage trade had ratified the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, but some had not agreed to all its articles, including Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar and Saudi Arabia had signed the Convention, she said, but their support had tended to be only on paper.
“The current Conventions and legislation are not enough to safeguard the cultural heritage, and the current laws in Europe and the US are much less severe on illegal antiquities dealing than they are on drugs, arms and human-trafficking,” Hanna said.
There should be prosecutions of antiquities dealers who trade in stolen heritage from the Middle East as well as private collectors. A main challenge was object-laundering, she said, in which objects are given falsified identities and auctioned off or sold to museums and private collectors.
Syria and Iraq have been badly hit by the illegal smuggling of antiquities, but so have Libya and Yemen, she said. She added that she had been asked by one woman in Yemen to talk about the country’s cultural heritage on the grounds that this could “reduce the current airstrikes.” “The view among the Arabs is that the West cares more about heritage than about Arab lives. This could cause negative attitudes towards cultural heritage,” Hanna said.
Hanna said that Reinhard Bernbeck of the Freie Universitat in Berlin had already argued that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001 had been seen as sending a political message rather than being an act of hate against the cultural heritage. She argued that the scientific committee of the new Fund should consist of 90 per cent Arab heritage professionals from different Arab countries. There should be an involvement of the Arab Archaeologists Union and the Arab League.
“Western intervention should be limited to the transfer of expertise to Arab colleagues, such as training on protecting museums or archaeological sites in situations of armed conflict,” Hanna said. Other examples could be training local heritage professionals in state-of-the-art conservation, restoration and preservation work. Work could then be carried out by Arab professionals through proper community engagement and not by foreign missions.
Hanna suggested that part of the Fund created by the Abu Dhabi Declaration should be targeted towards training the police and army on illicit digging and illegal antiquities dealing with a proper exchange of information between Europe and the Arab countries.
“Now, information is mostly shared between the European countries, UNESCO and Interpol, without enough collaboration with the affected Arab states,” she said, adding that a clear risk map and priority list for intervention with stakeholders identified ahead of funds transfer needed to be put in place.
Greater awareness of the need to make heritage work accessible to Arab audiences was essential, Hanna said. She said that 95 per cent of such work in the past had been published in English, French and German, with only minimal work published in Arabic. The Arab audience could not appreciate something they did not know about, she said, and it was essential that more academic and other publications should be made available in Arabic.
“All this will not be achieved only with a Fund of this type. It will be achieved through political lobbying in the affected countries suffering from cultural heritage desecration,” Hanna asserted, explaining that greater efforts should be made in transferring knowledge and training and in framing clearer legislation and tougher penalties.
There was a need to work collaboratively with UNESCO member states on a similar footing, rather than reproducing the stereotype of orientalist western interest in the Orient, Hanna concluded.
This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly Newspaper