The event was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in a splendid room devoted to the Temple of Dendur, given to the United States by Egypt, after the UNESCO-led campaign to save the Nubian temples.
The event featured keynote speeches from John F. Kerry, United States Secretary of State, and Irina Bokova, including participation by Emily Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Elizabeth Duggal, Chair, ICOM-US, representing ICOM International, Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund, Dr. Zaki Aslan, Director, ICCROM Sharjah Conservation Centre, UAE, as well as Boston University Professor Michael Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Ambassador Nix-Hines, Permanent Delegate of the United States to UNESCO, participated in the event.
Secretary of State Kerry made a powerful call for all to act now to safeguard the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq.
“We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage.”
What the Secretary of State called appalling acts of “cultural barbarism” by extremist groups are “not just a tragedy for Syrians and Iraqi but for all people.”
He stressed the importance of culture as “a foundation for life,” and said that extremist groups are not only “stealing lives but stealing the souls of millions.”
Secretary of State Kerry spoke about the laser-like focus of the US Government to safeguarding this shared heritage, through training and capacity-building, through monitoring and tracking.
“Our heritage is in peril — it is imperative we act now,” he said. “This is not just about shared values but our shared legacy.”
The Director-General thanked the Secretary of State, agreeing about the nature of the challenge.
“We see today unprecedented ‘cultural cleansing,’ cultural eradication and cultural looting — to deny the identities of Others, to erase their existence, to eliminate cultural diversity and to persecute minorities. We are witnessing the intentional destruction of irreplaceable landmarks. We are seeing communities attacked on the basis of their identities. We see the systematic looting of ancient sites for illicit trafficking, to finance extremist groups.”
In her words, “attacks against culture are attacks against people, against their identities, against their values and history, against their future – this is why the cultural and humanitarian dimensions of international responses cannot be delinked,” said the Director-General. “Protecting heritage must be an integral part of all peacebuilding efforts,” she continued.
She highlighted the proposal of UNESCO for the UN Security Council to consider a ban on the trade of Syrian cultural goods and underlined the need to join forces with the International Criminal Court:
“We must ensure recognition the destruction of cultural heritage is a crime against humanity.”
She underlined all of this is the work of partnership, and thanked the United States, and all partners for their commitment and support.
Thomas Campbell spoke about the commitment of the Metropolitan Museum to safeguarding cultural heritage across the world, through training and partnerships.
“Culture is essential to the renewal of society,” he said.
Professor Danti provided detailed information about the scale of destruction, which is “unparalleled since the second world war.”
“Thousands of sites are at risk,” he said — from combat, looting and increasingly from intentional destruction by extremist groups directed against other communities and minorities.
The event featured interventions also of Elizabeth Dugal (ICOM), Bonnie Burnham (WMF) and Dr. Zaki Aslan (ICCROM Sharjah Centre) on their work to safeguard unique heritage.
Following the discussion, a visit of the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Assyria to Iberia – At the Dawn of the Classical Age.’
“This is our response to extremism,” said the Director-General. “It starts with culture.”