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"IS seeks to rob people of their identity"

Minister of State Maria Böhmer was interviewed by the Catholic News Agency (KNA) on world heritage and the illegal trade in cultural objects (9 December 2015)

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Minister of State Böhmer, 2015 was a bad year for world heritage. IS destroyed a number of important cultural heritage sites and the world looked on. What is Germany doing about it?

We are witnessing a new and peculiarly underhanded type of warfare. The human and cultural losses are immense.

Combating IS is a job for the entire international community, which is now finally stepping up its efforts in the light of continuing terrorist attacks. At cultural policy level, we are providing support to countries such as Syria to further the digitisation of cultural objects and create a register in which data can be collected for reconstruction purposes. In addition we are also helping to teach locals in places like Iraq about the protection, preservation and rebuilding of cultural property. The German Archaeological Institute intends to train up young people, above all in Syria, with Federal Foreign Office support. In this way we will be able to give the people on the spot better prospects for the future.

In what way?

Cultural heritage sites have been selected as targets in order to obliterate people’s cultural roots. IS does not seem to be pursuing a religious agenda here. Its aim is to rob people of their identity. It’s a two-pronged campaign. The terrorists are attacking people and they are attacking their civilisation as embodied in cultural monuments. In Palmyra they not only destroyed the temple, they also killed the chief archaeologist. The situation that confronts us is barbaric.

Due in part to your advocacy, the United Nations has categorised the destruction of cultural treasures in Iraq as a war crime – what about countries such as Syria and Afghanistan?

The UN General Assembly Resolution sponsored by Germany and Iraq only applies to Iraq, but it does spell out that such actions always constitute an attack on the cultural heritage of all mankind. The same ideas fed into the declaration on the destruction of World Heritage sites in conflict areas that we adopted at the June session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Bonn. In it the member states called for the perpetrators to be held criminally responsible for their actions.

Do other UNESCO countries attach such importance to the issue?

All countries, including the Islamic countries, approved the UN resolution on the destruction of cultural property, and in the Bonn declaration, they all called for destruction and looting to be proscribed as war crimes and said that the illicit trafficking of cultural property had to be stopped.

You want to set up an “emergency aid fund for endangered cultural property”. How are you getting on?

The budget for the Federal Foreign Office’s Cultural Preservation Programme was doubled at the last budget debate. We now have 2.85 million euros more at our disposal. These funds are also intended to improve the Federal Foreign Office’s ability to provide emergency aid.

We also plan to establish a coordination office for world heritage. The funds are to be used to speed up our response in times of crisis and to help with reconstruction.

Should the monuments at Palmyra in Syria, or the historic sites in Nepal that were destroyed by the earthquake, be rebuilt?

We want to help in Nepal and Syria, not just by providing money but also by transferring the skills needed for preservation and reconstruction. We want to facilitate the exchange of experts. People’s livelihoods depend on such steps. The earthquake was a severe setback to tourism in Nepal. The World Heritage sites in Nepal are, together with the Himalayas, the country’s prime tourist attractions and are of crucial importance to its economic development. Reconstruction is thus becoming ever more important.

The trade in stolen or looted cultural property is flourishing. Germany is a key location for this illicit trafficking in cultural artifacts. This illegal trade is one of the main sources of finance for terrorist organisations like IS, along with drugs dealing and the arms trade. Everybody has to realise that. We – the international community – want and indeed must take urgent steps to deprive the terrorists of this source of income.

Germany has just re-enacted its Act on the Protection of Cultural Property. What do you think of it?

Two important improvements have been made. Cultural objects may now only be imported with their associated export licences, and when items are traded within Germany, their provenance has to be proven.

You launched reforms of UNESCO, above all as regards decision-making on further World Heritage sites. Do you think they’ve worked?

I wanted to make the work of the World Heritage Committee and the advisory bodies, such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), more transparent, and I wanted to involve civil society more closely. What we are concerned about are universal and unique World Heritage sites and their preservation. In the past, the World Heritage Fund was used primarily to finance the evaluation of nominations. I want to shift the focus to preservation. In my opinion, the reforms were an important move in the right direction.

There are now 1031 World Heritage sites. Is there an upper limit?

What counts is a site’s value for mankind. There can thus be no upper limit. However, Africa certainly needs to catch up with regard to its natural and cultural heritage sites. It is still the case that most of the World Heritage sites are in Europe. This does not reflect the great diversity of natural and cultural treasures around the world, which everyone should be made aware of. To achieve this goal, we need to share our knowledge of the nomination procedure with other countries.

The interview was conducted by Anna Mertens and is reproduced here by kind permission of the KNA.

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