By Mounir Bouchenaki
Assistant Director-General for Culture

When he asked me to write the introduction to this "Heritage at Risk" report, the President of ICOMOS could not have imagined to what extent this subject would be in the headlines during the first half of 2003. It is true that the past decade has been marked by unpardonable attacks on cultural heritage., and it is precisely in response to the voluntary and deliberate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (in Afghanistan) that the Director General accepted, at the request of Egypt, to submit the idea of a Cultural Heritage Year to the Executive Council of UNESCO. This proposal was not only approved by this governing body of UNESCO, but also by the United Nations General Assembly in November 2001.

The year 2002, having been declared United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage, acted as a catalyst for greater awareness of the importance of cultural heritage both in peacetime and during armed conflict.

Speaking to a group of experts in Islamic law meeting on 31 December 2001 in Qatar to discuss the position of Islam with regards to cultural heritage, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, the Director General of UNESCO, declared : "From the burning of Troy by the Achaeans to the razing of Baghdad by the Mongols, or, more recently from the demolition of the Ottoman bridge in Mostar to the blasting of the Bamiyan statues, the destruction of cultural heritage has time and time again tarnished the history of humankind. In the process, invaluable works of art, the very legacy of man to man, have disappeared. 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 civilization? Should the dialogue among civilizations ever be silenced, whether this dialogue is between different cultures today or between the past and the present?"

The resulting Qatar declaration drafted by the most eminent experts in Islamic law has allowed the fallacious arguments put forward by the Taliban regime to be refuted and has shown, based on concrete proof, that the reason we are able to admire so many archaeological remains in all Muslim countries is that Islam has never encouraged the destruction of works of the past which are considered as elements of knowledge and reference.

Sadly, barbaric acts committed against cultural property in the course of the many conflicts that took place at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s highlighted a number of deficiencies in the implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural properties in the event of armed conflict. A review of the Convention was initiated in 1991 to draw up a new agreement to take account of the experience gained from conflicts and the development of international humanitarian and cultural heritage protection law since 1954. Consequently, a Second Protocol to the Hague Convention was adopted at a Diplomatic Conference held at the Hague in March 1999. To date, the Second Protocol has not yet entered into force, although 10 States have lodged their instruments of ratification or accession, whilst until now 102 States are parties to the 1954 Convention

What is UNESCO doing?

When the UNESCO Secretariat receives information about an impending conflict or the destruction of cultural property during an armed conflict, it immediately contacts the warring parties, reminds them of their obligations to respect and protect cultural property and, if requested, renders technical assistance and sends expert missions. Moreover, in order to disseminate the provisions of the Convention more widely, UNESCO organises expert meetings, seminars and training courses for specific target groups (parliamentarians, members of armed forces, police officers, lawyers, conservation specialists, etc.) and issues publications.

UNESCO is not alone in this field; it co-operates closely with the United Nations and other intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations such as the Council of Europe, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the Red Cross, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Thus, besides the daily threats to cultural heritage largely illustrated in this report which merits wide dissemination, there is now also this trend towards heritage being destroyed because it has become a target and issue in conflicts.

The destruction of the cultural heritage of Iraq

During the month of April 2003, and thanks to the almost live coverage of the war in Iraq, we were several hundred million television viewers to witness, helplessly, the destruction and looting of Iraqi cultural institutions and in particular the theft of archaeological collections from the National Museum of Baghdad.

The whole world was outraged, but the looters continued their work, away from the cameras, on the great archaeological sites of this country whose heritage is thousands of years old.

The first UNESCO mission to Iraq, after the end of hostilities, was able to see, between the 16th and 20th May 2003, the extent of the disaster which is rightly termed a "cultural catastrophe". Whether it be at the National Museum of Baghdad, at the Regional Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Property, at the National Library and Archives or at historic monuments such as Bayt Al Hikma or the Abbasid Palace, the fury of the looting and vandalism is boundless. It is in the face of such situations that we are all called upon. What can UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM, the Blue Shield, and any other institutions whose aim is the safeguarding of cultural heritage do ? Are we totally powerless or do we still have to show more imagination and daring to ensure that besides the brutally sacrificed human lives, the inestimable treasure which is the cultural heritage is no longer also the innocent victim of future conflicts ?

Already before the conflict began, UNESCO raised the alarm and prepared, with its partners, ICOMOS, Interpol, ICOM, the World Customs Organisation and representatives of the international art market, as well as with the national authorities of the UNESCO member states neighbouring Iraq, an extensive campaign to prevent the illicit traffic of cultural goods. On 4 April, before the end of the conflict, the Director General of UNESCO, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, deploring the loss of human life announced that UNESCO was already ready to take on the responsibilities under its mandate. Thanks to this preparatory work, the Organisation was able to hold an information exchange and co-ordination meeting on 17th April with the best international experts on Iraq. This was continued on 29th April at the British Museum, and resulted in the development of a joint project with Interpol to stop, through all available means, the disappearance of these unique works of art.

Despite extremely difficult conditions, I was myself able to conduct two missions to the country, in mid-April and at the end of June, accompanied by the heads of the archaeological missions in Iraq and the best specialists from the museum and library field. Thus, it was possible to gather all the information necessary to take appropriate emergency safeguarding measures and ensure, as far as is possible in a country still troubled by major civil unrest, the security of the museums and sites. A third meeting, to set up a first operational project for the Baghdad museum, was held during August in Tokyo.

The efforts of UNESCO were, and must continue to be, supported by all its partners, among which ICOMOS is one of the most important. In this regard, I wish to express in my name and that of UNESCO all our thanks to Michael Petzet, President of ICOMOS, for the efforts of his organisation, but also, and above all, for his personal commitment and dedication which have allowed us to make considerable progress in our projects in Afghanistan. Through his participation as member of the International Co-ordination Committee for the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of this country, whose first plenary session was held on 16 and 18 June, but also through the actions he undertook with the help of generous contributions of the German government, the major site of Bamiyan will be safeguarded. There is no doubt that his competence and that of our ICOMOS colleagues will also be indispensable to us in the new task facing us : the safeguarding of the invaluable cultural heritage of Iraq.

Heritage as a vehicle for dialogue

All too often the target of destruction by virtue of its value as a symbol and an identity, the heritage must 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.

Today, UNESCO’s experience is based on some outstanding examples. Foremost among these was the programme for the safeguarding and development of the site of Angkor 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.

UNESCO’s strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina focused essentially on the re-appropriation by the ethnic communities, then in conflict, of a common heritage which had been representative of each of them at some time in its history. As the symbol of the Bosnian Muslim heritage and the links between the Muslim and Croatian communities, the Old Bridge at Mostar, destroyed in 1993 by extremists, is under reconstruction thanks to international aid.

In parallel with ongoing negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, UNESCO has undertaken to renovate two religious institutions that were the destinations of pilgrimages for the Greek Orthodox and Muslim communities in Cyprus. Following agreements signed with the representatives of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, each denomination can now undertake three pilgrimages annually to its respective sites. Lastly, the restoration of the graves at Kokuryo through a joint programme involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea has been a clear sign of the considerable effort at reviving a climate of entente and trust in the Korean peninsula.

Mounir Bouchenaki
Assistant Director-General for Culture