The protection of the World Cultural Heritage

Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 

The protection of the World Cultural Heritage


UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova and the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni signed in February 2016 in Rome an agreement on the establishment of a Task Force of cultural heritage experts in the framework of UNESCO’s global coalition “Unite for Heritage”. Under the agreement, UNESCO will be able to ask the Italian Government to make experts of the Task Force available for deployment for the conservation of cultural heritage in areas affected by crises.

“The agreement is a major and innovative step in our effort to gain recognition for the importance of cultural heritage in cementing identity, building social cohesion and fostering resilience in times of crisis,” said the Director-General.

“The establishment of a Task Force bringing together cultural heritage experts and the Italian Carabinieri force specialized in the fight against the illicit trafficking in cultural property will enhance our capacity to respond to future emergencies”, the Director-General said .

This Strategy is in response to the recent large-scale, systematic destruction and looting of cultural sites and attacks on cultural diversity and cultural and religious minorities infringing on their human rights and security. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage may be considered a war crime. The reinforcement of UNESCO’s capacity to respond to current challenges builds on existing international legal instruments, notably the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and enhances the scope of their application.

UNESCO's role

In August 2015 the Director-General of UNESCO had already firmly condemned the destruction of the ancient temple of Baalshamin, an iconic part of the Syrian site of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“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. One week after the killing of Professor Khaled al-Assaad, 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,” said the Director-General.

The temple was one of the most important and best preserved buildings in Palmyra.

“The art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, is a symbol of the complexity and wealth of the Syrian identity and history. Extremists seek to destroy this diversity and richness, and I call on the international community to stand united against this persistent cultural cleansing. The Islamic State (IS) is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world” said the Director-General.

From this point of view, maybe something is changing: for the first time, on 27 September 2016, the International Criminal Court sentenced someone for a crime against historical monuments, of a symbolic and religious value, protected by UNESCO. Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi, former head of the Islamic Ansar Dine extremist militia, was convicted of war crimes for having taken part in destroying the mausoleums in Timbuktu in northern Mali in 2012. This case is an example of growing acknowledgement by the International Community that destruction of cultural heritage amounts to violations of humanitarian law.

Destruction of UNESCO World Heritage

The destruction of World Heritage sites (such as the demolition of the Bamyian's Buddhas in Afghanistan) is often associated to the absolute iconoclasm of several Islamic fundamentalist groups.

However, these are only the most visible examples of a broader threat to cultural heritage around the world. And extremist groups are far from the only ones responsible; profitable looting, unchecked industrial and urban development, and collateral damages during conflicts – all have led to the destruction or disappearance of cultural heritage.

In November 1945, representatives from different nations gathered to ponder the causes of two consecutive global conflicts. The group, made up of politicians, scientists, philosophers, and artists, identified part of the problem as mankind’s “ignorance of each other’s ways and lives” – an inability to understand, appreciate and preserve different cultures.

At the end of the conference, thirty-seven countries created UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and signed its constitution.

In November 1972, UNESCO adopted the “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” while emphasizing the global ownership of this heritage, along with the responsibilities of future generations. UNESCO decided that the sum of all of mankind’s experience and achievements was to be safeguarded and shown as the heritage of all. It would serve as the ultimate common denominator. Some of the Charter’s lessons are simple: the past belongs to no particular nation, no culture is a hermetic entity, and it is a fluid concept, always gaining new elements.

As of today, 779 cultural properties, along with 31 sites are listed throughout the world. As of today, 46 World Heritage sites and 38 cultural practices are considered endangered. In order to support UNESCO's effort, increasing international collaboration between different institutions has occurred at the scientific, law enforcement and judicial levels.

The destruction of memory

The destruction of memory is perpetrated to remove a piece of civilisation, of memory built over time. Taking it out on cultural heritage is, in fact, a totally new factor: the destruction of monuments and churches has always been done, but what’s alarming is how it’s evolving.

As an organization, IS has inherited the Taliban and al-Qaeda brutal way with heritage, demonstrating its keen understanding of the uses and abuses of architecture. The destruction of cultural sites can serve many purposes; terror, propaganda, conquest, genocide. While this destruction is informed superficially by the iconoclastic religious doctrine that has its origins in Saudi Wahhabism, it is essentially political in nature, an ideology that challenges the postcolonial settlement with national boundaries imposed by the Western capitalist model on their people with brutality, corruption and hopeless poverty.

The important consideration is, anyway, the theme of reconstruction. As soon as the opportunity arises, there’s an enormous desire to rebuild a lost identity exactly as it had been. For example, what did Milan fix right before rebuilding the city after the World War II? The Teatro alla Scala: it was damaged during the war, but even before reconstructing the city, Milan began from its opera house, which is the city’s true identity. Since the time of the pyramids, architecture has always born witness to the traces man has left behind over time. Getting rid of these means they never existed at all. Rebuilding them means they’ve always been there.

Furthermore, our Western notions of a shared cultural heritage inevitably inspire a special kind of indignation, and the strategic targeting of priceless ancient artefacts has led to elaborate initiatives for their protection, the use of 3D printing for their replication and replacement.

Mapping the Destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites has allowed to highlight 700 heritage sites throughout the 22 states of the Arab League, of which 230 have been destroyed. The mapping application includes a swiping tool to see the loss of heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring. Satellite Imagery has also been working to assess the condition of heritage sites located in Hatra and Nimrud in Iran.


From Cortés in Mexico to Britain's bombing of historic Lubeck and the retaliatory Baedeker raids in World War II, systematic attacks on heritage targets have been integrated to military conquest.

In case after case – as the Taliban in Bamiyan and IS in Palmyra – wiping out the culture of a hated people was a means of subjugating them.

Old places are not simply relics for scholars. Historic buildings possess the same cultural vitality as do great sculptures and paintings.

Warsaw rebuilt its old square, Dresden its Frauenkirche and the UK National Trust its fire-damaged Uppark.

It is to UNESCO's credit that it has already used local craftsmen to rebuild in Mali the shrines smashed by al-Mahdi, even if it cannot recover their books and contents. By prosecuting those who did the smashing, the court greatly strengthens the case for such rebuilding.

UNESCO still cannot make up its mind to restore the Bamiyan Buddhas and argument is raging over whether the bombed temples of Palmyra should be rebuilt or left as piles of rubble as obscene monument to IS. Our debt to the past is growing more complicated than either wiping it out or putting up fences and charging for entry. The challenge is constant.

The International Criminal Court trial honours the obligation of today's generation to guard the evidence of the past, at least in times of conflict. When peace returns, we cannot breathe life into dead bodies, but we can redress the murder of memories.


Cultural heritage is typically understood to be built heritage, monuments related to culture such as museums, religious buildings, ancient structures and sites. However, we should also include the slightly less material things, i.e., stories, poems, plays, recipes, customs, fashions, designs, music, songs and ceremonies of a place, as cultural heritage.

Societies have long sought to protect and preserve their cultural heritage for reasons ranging from education to historical research to the desire to reinforce a sense of identity. Monuments and symbols of culture speak of shared roots and acquire an increased significance: this is why they can become targets of violent action seeking to destroy the symbols valued by enemies.

Physical destruction of culturally significant artefacts grants perpetrators the power to reject them as unimportant and to limit how well they can be known for future generations. In IS case, militants are erasing traces of civilizations that do not align with their ideology, performing, in effect, a form of “cultural cleansing”.

People in Europe sometimes think they are very far removed from those attitudes, but they don't need to look too hard to find equivalents close to home, and not too long ago. Some churches and cathedrals in France have still headless statues adorning them. Revolutionaries were perhaps not destroying them as a religious statement as much as a political one, but it was wanton destruction. Also in the rest of Europe churches, monasteries and symbols of faith were destroyed for sectarian reasons.

Safeguarding of cultural heritage cannot be the task only of archaeologists, art experts and librarians. Cultural property remains an international resource in need of protection. Although moral and legal obligations exist, there should be more opportunities available for training in cultural property protection, education and research.

The imperative of protecting cultural heritage has never been greater. Crimes against cultural objects can pose a range of serious global security challenges ranging from the sale of artefacts thus financing of terrorism to the revenues provided to organized criminal organizations. On-site assessments during conflicts are needed to gather evidence for the prosecutions of those accused of cultural war crimes.

The answer to the question of whether we can stop the destruction of our cultural heritage must be “yes”. And now, more than ever, we must resist the dismantling of our shared identity and not hesitate to use all the levers at our disposal.