“Wherever culture is destroyed, humanity dies”: International conference on the protection of cultural heritage

The ancient sites of Palmyra were largely destroyed by the IS terrorist Group.

The ancient sites of Palmyra were largely destroyed by the IS terrorist Group., © Picture Alliance

16.11.2020 - Article

How can humankind’s cultural heritage be protected from destruction as a result of climate change, natural disasters, illegal trade and armed conflicts? Experts are discussing this from 16 to 18 November at a conference organised by the Federal Foreign Office and its partners.

Protecting cultural property around the world: International conference

There was an international outcry when the ancient sites of Palmyra or the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed in attacks by the terrorist organisation IS and the Taliban. The impact of armed conflicts is devastating for the world’s cultural heritage – well beyond Syria and Afghanistan. Not only is valuable cultural property lost forever as a result – above all, important sources of knowledge on history and culture disappear.

These crimes against the cultural heritage are crimes against humanity. Because what has been destroyed cannot be recovered. Wherever culture is destroyed, humanity dies – and a part of each and every one of us dies.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas emphasised this at the opening of an international conference on “cultural heritage and multilateralism” being hosted by the Federal Foreign Office in partnership with UNESCO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe from 16 to 18 November 2020. In a virtual format, experts from the academic community, the world of politics and the cultural scene are exchanging their experiences and knowledge and discussing how the international community can come together to protect cultural heritage. Minister of State Müntefering will speak at the conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention of 1970.

Disasters, climate change, illegal trade

Beirut: Following the explosion in the city’s port, Lebanese and German architects specialising in the protection of historical monuments examine the damage.
Beirut: Following the explosion in the city’s port, Lebanese and German architects specialising in the protection of historical monuments examine the damage.© Henning Burwitz, DAI

Not only crimes in armed conflicts but also disasters pose a threat to cultural sites. In 2019, images of the burning Notre-Dame de Paris were broadcast around the world. In 2018, a fire ripped through the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, a major natural history and ethnological museum. The building was completely gutted and a large share of the exhibits was destroyed.

Climate change also poses a threat to humankind’s heritage. Sea levels are rising around the world. Even a moderate rise places countless cultural sites in the Mediterranean in acute danger – just think of the Venice lagoon, as well as Tyre in Lebanon, the archaeological ensemble in Tarragona in Spain or Ephesus in Turkey.

In many countries, cultural heritage is jeopardised time and again due to illegal excavations, smuggling, theft and plundering: in the past, IS has partly funded itself via the illegal trade in cultural property. The latest studies show that only a tiny proportion of cultural property from the Eastern Mediterranean is traded legally.

Working together to protect cultural property

These issues will also be discussed at the three-day conference. It is clear that the protection of cultural property is one of the international community’s priority tasks. Assistance can only take the form of coordinated multilateral action. The cooperation is bearing fruit: in 2012, the valuable manuscripts from the libraries of Timbuktu were saved from an attempt to destroy them by radical Islamist militia groups and taken to Bamako. Furthermore, in 2015 Germany and Iraq co-sponsored a UN resolution against the destruction of cultural property and against terrorist financing through illegal trade.

Germany is working to protect cultural property

Beyond the conference, Germany is engaged around the world in protecting cultural property. When disaster strikes, for example after the fire in the Brazilian museum, Germany provides financial support worth millions. Staff members of the German Archaeological Institute are immediately on the ground when cultural heritage sites are damaged, most recently following the explosion in the port of Beirut.

Moreover, Germany has decided to establish a “cultural property rescue mechanism”, comparable to a technical relief agency for cultural property at risk under the aegis of the German Archaeological Institute. It will make it possible to act swiftly and mobilise experts with the required disaster response technology and know-how. The groundwork has already been laid.

Germany has also considerably stepped up its measures to tackle the illegal trade in cultural property with the Cultural Property Protection Act of 2016. Anyone importing cultural property to Germany must prove that the objects have been legally exported from the country of origin.

Furthermore, the Archaeological Heritage Network promoted by the Federal Foreign Office pools competence in the areas of monument preservation, archaeology, restoration, science and research.

Further information can be found here.

Find out more:

Alliance for Multilateralism

Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office

Protection of cultural property


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