The United States has made the unfortunate decision to withdraw from membership with UNESCO. I should probably have some thoughts about this, but I just feel profoundly sad. The Trump administration is a parade of embarrassment, and this is one of a series of anti-science, anti-art, anti-culture decisions. Sadly it may not be the last.
The best reads I’ve found on the decision is this reporting by Eli Rosenberg and Carol Morello in the Washington Post. Jack Morgan also has a very fine radio report for the Texas Standard on how much work goes into seeking World Heritage designation, and how the decision may impact the World Heritage sites in San Antonio.
In remarks marking the opening of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany yesterday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asked for help from the international community:
Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action . . . Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the ‘Venice of the Sands’, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present. . .
That is a wonderful sentiment, and one I endorse, but note also that there are not calls for much in the way of concrete action. And that’s because short of military intervention there really is not much that can be done to dissuade those bent on erasing heritage. In a statement today the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated its deep concern about the situation in Palmyra:
Intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes . . .
So it may amount to war crimes, yet the International Criminal Court has no good opening to bring charges even if it wanted to. That’s because neither Syria nor Iraq has signed on to the ICC convention, and the individuals who commit this destruction are not high-profile enough it seems to warrant an ICC investigation and prosecution anyway. And so the end result is there is an accountability gap for this destruction.
[T]he legal bases for prosecuting individuals for violations of the 1954 Hague Convention and the World Heritage Convention are largely absent. Those responsible may be prosecuted under the Syrian Antiquities Law, a law that was presumably approved independently of those conventions and hence present a number of caveats explained above. If the Chautauqua Blueprint is successful, it would turn a blind eye to three major causes of damage (viz. looting, use for military purposes, attacks against sites that constitute military objectives) allowing those behind this vicious circle of violations to “walk away.” This is especially frustrating if one takes into consideration that the driving force behind the adoption of conventional laws for the protection of cultural property has mostly been motivated by a desire to hold individuals accountable. The accountability gap shown in the case of Syria should serve those involved in the implementation of cultural heritage laws (e.g., UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee at the international level) as a warning that the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, or any other instrument before that, did not manage to have consequences for Bamiyan or beyond.
So if there is one thing that can be done, it may be to consider reforms to the current laws to hold those who destroy heritage individually accountable. But that change would have little impact on the current conflict in Syria.
In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.
She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:
Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.
There are more and more reports emerging from Syria which tell of destruction, looted museums, and smuggling salable objects. On Saturday Aleppo’s souk was caught in the middle of fighting between rebels and government forces and the souk burned. The old city of Aleppo, where the souk is located is a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova criticized the destruction over the weekend:
The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history – valued and admired the world over – makes it even more tragic. The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria’s economic and social life since the city’s beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.
The souk is situated underneath Aleppo’s 13th century citadel. There are reports that government forces have taken up positions in the ancient building. Rodrigo Martin, an expert on Syrian sites said the Souk “was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture” because it offered a progression of hundreds of years of architectural periods, and had been well-preserved.
There have also been reports that items from the National Museum of Aleppo have been moved into the central bank in Damascus for safekeeping. But there have also been reports in Time that museums elsewhere in the country are being looted and arms are being traded for antiquities at the Syria/Lebanon border. In Cairo there will be an emergency meeting to discuss possible efforts the international community can take in response to the damage and looting according to a report in ahram.
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Martin Bailey for the Art Newspaper reports on UNESCO taking the initial steps towards putting Pompeii on the World Heritage in Danger list. A report published in June (to little fanfare) found that:
Although much of Pompeii remains in good repair, the problems are numerous, including “inappropriate restoration methods and a general lack of qualified staff… restoration projects are outsourced and the quality of the work of the contractors is not being assessed. An efficient drainage system is lacking, leading to water infiltration and excessive moisture that gradually degrades the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor. The mission was also concerned by the amount of plant growth, particularly ivy.” . . . Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.
That has been my experience on visiting Pompeii as well. Do people need to touch and scramble over everything? On visiting the site, perhaps the calls by some to just bury parts of the site, and leave open only those areas which can be properly managed and visited is the right answer. I was surprised to learn that in 1956 there were 66 restored houses open to visitors, but today only 15 are open, and these are badly damaged by ignorant tourists and inefficient security.
There has been €105m set aside by the European Union, and a UNESCO ‘action plan’ could enable that money to be spent. However the funding cuts at UNESCO which resulted from the unfortunate decision on the one hand by the U.S. to cut all UNESCO support, and second, but UNESCO member states and Palestine to force the political brinksmanship may put that funding in jeopardy.