Why the tide of ‘cultural cleansing’ must be rolled back

Rebuilding the legacy of centuries can help bring former enemies together in peace

Unesco was created in 1945 to foster a spirit of collaboration between nations. The preamble to its Constitution reads: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed."

When the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) was created in 1956, it was in a similar spirit, to assist nations restoring and preserving the tangible symbols of their culture after war.

In the past few years not only civil populations but also cultural heritage has often been a military target or the flashpoint of political, ethnic and religious conflicts. Besides claiming human lives, conflicts have a profound impact on human values, cultures and religions. Increasingly, combatants deliberately target symbols of culture in order to destroy a country and people’s identities.

In Kosovo, Islamic heritage was seriously damaged due to “ethnic cleansing” carried out in 1998 and 1999. During the war that ravaged the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999, cultural emblems were targeted, including the World Heritage site of Dubrovnik. More than 15 years ago, the destruction of two giant 1,500-year-old Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime became a global symbol for “crimes against culture”.

In 2001, Koichiro Matsuura, director general of Unesco, said: "Islam itself has paid a heavy price during this long series of acts of vandalism. How, then, can one fail to be appalled when, in the name of one interpretation of the same Islamic faith, armed groups destroy the physical legacies of cultures that had long ago contributed to the emergence of their own civilisation?"

He was speaking to a group of experts in Islamic law who drafted a declaration that refuted the fallacious arguments put forward by the Taliban regime. It also showed that Islam has never encouraged the destruction of works of the past that are considered as elements of knowledge and reference.

However, the latest events in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, with the development of Islamic State, are proving that there is no respect for the lives of hundred of thousands of people, not to speak of their heritage, which is being bulldozed or destroyed by explosives.

Following the Arab Spring and the successive destructions of monuments and archaeological sites in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen by the extremist groups of Islamic State, also known as Isis, the present Unesco director general, Irina Bokova, called these acts "crimes against culture", "war crimes" and "cultural cleansing".

Assyrian relics that have stood for more than 3,000 years have been destroyed by terrorists who show videos of their barbaric acts for publicity.

Numerous archaeological sites in Syria are being systematically targeted for clandestine excavations by well-organised and often armed groups, not all originating from Syria. Museums have been looted and cultural properties from Syria are being exported mainly through the borders of neighbouring countries.

Syrian cultural property is disappearing from the country and ending up on the black market and in private collections.

The most visible damage in Syria was done in the Old City of Aleppo, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986, and the prestigious archaeological site of Palmyra, which contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

“The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history,” said director-general Bokova in August 2015. “One week after the killing of Prof Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra’s ruins for four decades, this destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”

As reported by journalist Hugh Eakin in the New York Review of Books: "Among the major turning points of the Syrian conflict, few have been laden with as much symbolism – or geopolitical posturing – as the recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27th, 2016. After a weeks-long campaign by Russian bombers and Syrian regime soldiers, the withdrawal of Isis forces from this extraordinary desert oasis was celebrated as bringing an end to an infamous reign of barbarism."

Heritage must also become an instrument for bringing warring parties closer and reconciling them, a starting point for the resumption of dialogue and the construction of a common future.

Unesco’s experience in this regard is based on some outstanding examples. Foremost among these was the programme for the safeguarding and development of the site of Angkor in Cambodia, which exemplified the importance of a heritage site, emblem of a nation, for restoring social cohesion, reinstating the cultural identity of the Khmer people, and propelling the economic development of the country on the basis of cultural tourism and employment opportunities for the local population.

In an armed conflict or natural disaster, heritage is particularly at risk, owing to its inherent vulnerability and tremendous symbolic value. Its destruction can deprive a community of its memory, the physical testimony to its past, but also of a precious resource for social and economic wellbeing. Once the fighting stops, rebuilding certain landmarks can help people learn how to live together in peace again.

In an appeal for the safeguarding of Syria's cultural heritage, the incumbent Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, Irina Bokova and then UN and League of Arab States Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, stressed this important risk and its devastating implications: "Destroying the inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation. Now is the time to stop the destruction, build peace and protect our common heritage."

Mounir Bouchenaki is an Algerian archaeologist and incumbent director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage. He was director-general of ICCROM from 2006 to 2011, and Unesco's assistant director general for culture from 2000 to 2006. On November 16th, he will speak at the Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street at 6pm on cultural heritage and recent armed conflicts. Booking essential, €5/3 see ria.ie/events