Speech by Minister of State Maria Böhmer to the German Bundestag on safeguarding UNESCO World Cultural Heritage

18.06.2015 - Speech

– Translation of advance text –

Mr President,
Fellow members of this House,

Bamyan, Timbuktu, Mosul, Nimrud, Ninawa, Hatra, Palmyra, Sana’a. Once proud cultural sites – now the scenes of horrific events.

Time and again, we find our hearts in our mouths – because people are being killed in these places; because cultural property thousands of years old is being destroyed forever; because we are confronted with cruel barbarity, with religious extremism. The rampaging of terrorist organisations, like ISIS in Iraq, defies the imagination. The wounds that destruction is leaving are deep scars in the heritage of mankind, in a region’s history, in a nation’s identity, in the cultural memory of the world.

We must stand up for our values! This is about human dignity, about tolerance, about protection of diversity and about respect for other people and their culture. These are things we need to fight for!

Many people ask me whether we shouldn’t be looking first to help the people. What I say to them is that it isn’t a matter of either-or. The President of this House, Norbert Lammert, made the point very well when he said, “Where art and culture are massacred, people are massacred too.”

Terrorists are well aware of the power of culture. That’s why they want to destroy cultural roots – because culture is the basis of people’s identities, for shared sense of community and their ways of life. And that is precisely why we need to do everything we can to protect and preserve cultural property.

It is for this reason that Germany and Iraq sponsored a resolution on the protection of cultural property in the UN General Assembly. The resolution was adopted by consensus in May, with a good deal of support from many countries including the Muslim states. This is extremely significant, as a demonstration that no country in the world accepts the religious motivation which ISIS claims justifies its activities.

Two things are important to me.

First, the resolution condemns terrorist attacks on cultural property as a new tactic of war, pronouncing it a war crime that every country must make subject to prosecution. Second, the resolution calls on all countries around the world to support Iraq in protecting its cultural heritage.

And it isn’t just destruction we are faced with. Looting, illegal digs and trafficking in cultural objects are the order of the day. Everyone has to be aware that buying and selling illegally exported cultural property finances terrorism – and that is unacceptable!

My colleague Monika Grütters, Minister of State for Culture, has proposed a bill to improve protection of cultural property. This law will finally place an effective barrier in the way of illegal trafficking in cultural objects.

Our experts are providing real, direct help in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. I particularly want to thank the German Archaeological Institute and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation most sincerely for their outstanding work.

Fellow members of this House,

Cultural property and world heritage sites are also threatened by natural disasters, such as recently struck in Nepal, environmental degradation, economic interests and simple neglect. We have already been able to support a large number of successful projects through the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office.

However, the dramatic developments of recent years show that we need more intensive coordination and an additional emergency programme for endangered cultural property and world heritage sites. That is a key point in this motion, and I thank you for taking this landmark decision!

We have also learned that our world heritage sites in Germany, too, depend on long-term support. I am glad that very many of you are contributing to those efforts both here in the Bundestag and in your constituencies. I also welcome the fact that the motion raises that need.

Members of the House,

In a few days, the 39th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will start in Bonn. I am expecting more than 1500 participants from 191 countries. The World Heritage Committee meeting is a unique opportunity to show the world our rich cultural heritage and natural treasures, from Aachen Cathedral, first on the World Heritage List, to Corvey Westwork and Civitas, which was inscribed last year.

There will be three prongs to the meeting of the World Heritage Committee. Firstly, we expect new sites to be inscribed on the list, including some in Germany. I am hopeful that we will have reason to celebrate. As we all know, however, inscription on the list brings with it a special responsibility to protect and preserve that heritage too.

The second element high on our agenda will therefore be the conservation of world heritage sites that are under threat. All eyes will primarily be on the Great Barrier Reef. The decision taken in Doha last year resulted in a clear change of direction on the part of the Australian Government. That stands as an example and shows the strength of the World Heritage Convention.

Thirdly, we will talk about reform to address the increasing politicisation of the concept of global heritage. I have started a reform process to enhance credibility, transparency and sustainability.

Members of the House,

The World Heritage Convention is a unique success story. There are more than 1000 world heritage sites across the globe. Each one of them is characterised by outstanding universal value. That makes this about far more than one region or one country.

This is about the heritage of mankind – and that is worth every effort! I cannot imagine a more satisfying job.

Thank you very much.

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