In the United States, the Director-General highlights the importance of heritage as a key security issue


On 4 and 5 April, in the context of her visit to the United States of America, Director-General Irina Bokova took part in a Conference on “Preservation of Art and Culture in Times of War”, organized by the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law of the University of Pennsylvania.

Held in the aftermath of the historic adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 2347 on the protection of heritage in the event of armed conflict, as well as in the aftermath of the first ever G7 Culture Ministers’ meeting held in Florence at the end of March, the Conference provided the opportunity to further illustrate the degree to which cultural heritage has become a central target in modern conflicts and its protection therefore a security imperative.

The Director-General participated in the opening session’s panel discussion on the theme “New Frontiers in the Protection of Cultural Heritage”. Other panelists included Hon. Richard Goldstone, Retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Ms Shamila Batohi, Senior Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court; Professor Karima Bennoune, United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; and Professor Derek Gillman, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University.

In the course of the discussion, the participants explored how preservation efforts must change in response to the challenges of the 21st century. Director-General Irina Bokova emphasized that the destruction of cultural property went beyond a material and aesthetic loss. She recalled the urgency of placing heritage and culture as tools for peace and dialogue at the heart of the political agenda. She also stressed the importance to work closely with and involve the local communities and educate young people about the preservation of the cultural heritage.

Director-General Bokova further insisted on the need to further strengthen legal tools, and highlighted that the recent UN Security Council Resolution 2347, as well at the G7 Culture Ministers’ meeting, constituted milestones in this regard. She also emphasized that it was essential to further work towards the unification of the international legal framework and increase the ratification of international treaties. “We must ensure that cultural property is protected by adequate national legislation and not used for military purposes. This calls for more cooperation between public administrations and other institutions, including customs officials, specialized police forces, and other law-enforcement agencies,” stated the Director-General.

Opening the event, Professor Finkelstein, Founder and Director of Penn’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law quoted German poet Heinrich Heine who said that “when people start burning books, they will in the end burn people” and underlined the importance of engaging all stakeholders – the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations, lawyers, academics, museums and archeologists – in order to address the protection of heritage.

Ms Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur for cultural rights shared the conviction of the Director-General that cultural heritage is universal and should be protected. She stressed that “attacking heritage is about attacking the human beings who value that heritage”. Justice Richard Goldstone recalled that “the destruction of cultural heritage is part of a process of dehumanization of the victims which always precedes crimes of genocides”.

Ms Batohi, Senior Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor of the ICC indicated that Court is currently developing a policy on the protection of the cultural heritage but that one of the challenges relates to the definition of a “cultural property”. In this regards, the Director-General recalled UNESCO’s close cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to ensure that the force of justice eventually prevails.

The UPenn Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), is a non-partisan interdisciplinary institute dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the rule of law in twenty-first century warfare and national security. The only Center of its kind housed within a law school, CERL draws from the study of law, philosophy, and ethics to answer to the challenges of contemporary transnational conflicts.

In the context of her visit, the Director-General will give a lecture tomorrow at Salisbury University in Maryland on “Preventing Violent Extremism in the 21st Century: Fostering a New Generation of Global Citizens”, which will be held within the “One Person Can Make a Difference” lecture series hosted by the Bosserman Center for Conflict Resolution.