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Enhancing protection for cultural property

26.05.2015 - Interview

An article by Maria Böhmer, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, published in the newspaper Die Welt on 26 May 2015

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Germany holds the Chairmanship of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. As President of that body, I see how much people expect of Germany. The images of destroyed cultural property and world heritage sites in Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra are still fresh in our minds, and new images are coming in every day. The most recent such move has been the attack on Palmyra, a first‑class international research site and, as Heidelberg archaeologist Peter A. Miglus has described it, “a work of art in its entirety in which the Eastern and Western worlds meet”.

As we have witnessed in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria and Iraq, barbarous treatment of cultural property has become a means of waging war and a source of funding for international terrorism. Natural disasters also threaten humanity’s cultural heritage time and again, as we just saw with the earthquake in Nepal. Cultural property is what identity, a sense of belonging and security are built on, a basis for social and religious cohesion.

We can’t always prevent war and destruction, nor can we always intervene militarily, but that doesn’t mean we need to stand by and do nothing. We can condemn the deliberate destruction of cultural property as what it is: a war crime that strikes at people’s spiritual, social and economic foundations, an existential assault. We can provide dynamic, substantial and coordinated assistance to help those affected. In times of crisis, protecting, preserving and reconstructing cultural property needs to become even more of an instrument to complement foreign policy.

We therefore first need a central office for coordinating international and German aid for cultural property in crisis areas. Second, we need an emergency aid fund for endangered cultural property. The Federal Foreign Office is the right place for that. Under the aegis of our cultural relations policy, we can identify needs and donors from Germany and elsewhere and coordinate them in collaboration with our national and international partners, especially UNESCO. The German Archaeological Institute and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation are already doing exemplary work in this area. Private foundations, academic institutions and NGOs are also increasingly active, making efficient coordination and foreign-policy direction more important than ever. An aid fund could finance short‑term measures in severe crises, supporting people on the ground and local partners as they take steps to secure sites of cultural significance.

The resolution condemning the destruction of ancient sites, which Germany and Iraq have put forward jointly and which the UN General Assembly will vote on in May, sends the important political message from the international community that no country in the world accepts the religious motivation which ISIS claims justifies its destructive activities – and that protecting cultural property is a shared responsibility.

While easing human suffering must always have priority, standing up for sites of cultural heritage is an expression of the will to safeguard for the future people’s cultural identities and the foundations on which they build their lives. International protection of cultural property has three strands: the humanitarian dimension, security policy and international law. We need to strengthen all three aspects.

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