A destroyed pottery shop inside the Old City of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Monica Prieto
After a year that saw the UNESCO World Heritage Convention celebrate its 40th anniversary, the most poignant takeaway may be the questions raised about UNESCO’s limitations when it comes to truly protecting World Heritage Sites.
In 2012, by far the most publicized examples were the multitude of Syrian sites damaged during the ongoing conflict and the ancient city of Timbuktu, more than half of whose historic shrines have reportedly been destroyed by militants. Less known are the hundreds of other cultural heritage sites that remain endangered due to accelerating threats of mass tourism, uncontrolled development, encroachment, looting and man-made destruction — particularly those in developing countries and without UNESCO recognition.
As GHF’s Senior Technical Advisor and ICOMOS Advisory Committee President John Hurd said recently in an interview with The Art Newspaper, “There is no heritage army” to defend against armed conflict, and even in cases where inscribed sites are failing to meet World Heritage standards, UNESCO’s options for sanctions are effectively limited to bad publicity — placing a site on its List of World Heritage in Danger, or threatening to de-list it (which has only happened twice).
In an op-ed this week for The New York Times, Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, details the value and vulnerability of cultural heritage. Defining its protection as an “international security issue,” she outlines three steps UNESCO must take, beginning with a better implementation of treaties like the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1970 Convention Against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which became Palestine’s first World Heritage Site in 2012, was simultaneously added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. Photo: Steve Conger
“Each of these sends the messages: States have an obligation to protect their heritage, and not everything is allowed in war,” Bokova writes. “This is already an achievement, but in a world changing quickly, legal texts will never be as fast as a rocket. We need renewed leadership to strengthen national capacities and awareness.”
Bokova also argues on behalf of stronger “coalitions for culture” involving armed forces and different international bodies, pointing to last year’s military intervention in Libya as a successful example of all parties involved being urged to protect the country’s cultural heritage. Her third recommendation, and what she calls the “best way to protect culture in conflict,” is simply to support cultural heritage sites in the belief that a community united around a site is more likely to protect it.
“The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972,” Bokova writes. “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.”
Click here to read Irina Bokova’s “Culture in the Crosshairs” on NYTimes.com