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"Acts of destruction of World Heritage sites are war crimes"

27.06.2015 - Interview

In the coming days, UNESCO intends to send a message of support for the protection of historic sites in the “Bonn Declaration”. In an interview with the Kölner Stadtanzeiger on 27 June 2015, Minister of State Maria Böhmer, Chair of the World Heritage Committee, talks about urgent measures to protect valuable cultural property.

In the coming days, UNESCO intends to send a message of support for the protection of historic sites in the “Bonn Declaration”. In an interview with the Kölner Stadtanzeiger on 27 June 2015, Minister of State Maria Böhmer, Chair of the World Heritage Committee, talks about urgent measures to protect valuable cultural property.

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Professor Böhmer, while the World Heritage Conference is taking place in Bonn, outstanding world heritage sites in Syria are in danger of being completely destroyed. What is your response to this?

It is always a great shock when terrorism, natural disasters, conflicts or even simple neglect threaten world heritage sites. That is why I want to use the conference to take an active stand to promote the preservation and protection of world heritage sites. To this end we will adopt a Bonn Declaration on Monday.

What will that contain?

We want to speak out strongly and clearly against the destruction of world heritage sites in conflict areas, as is happening at this moment in Iraq and Syria, where terrorism is rampant. Following the branding of these acts of destruction as war crimes by the United Nations General Assembly, at the instigation of Germany and Iraq, we want to highlight this issue once more in Bonn. This involves not only warning against trafficking in illicit cultural property but also taking action to put a stop to it. For the sales also go towards financing terrorism.

How can that be achieved in practical terms?

I believe it is vital for every country to take action. That is why I attach great importance to the amendment to the law on the restitution of cultural property soon to be adopted by the Bundestag. It is envisaged that the import of cultural property should only be possible with a valid export licence from the country of origin.

Do you get the impression that the Syrian army is more interested in protecting the oil fields than the historic sites?

I have no evidence of that. It goes without saying that sites such as Palmyra are especially valuable. The terrorists want to wipe out the legacy of very diverse religions and cultures, because they are well aware of the power of cultural roots. That is why they are attacking people’s cultural and social existence. Yet these sites are not only part of a nation’s identity, they are also an economic factor, because they attract tourists. That is another reason why we have to protect this cultural property.

How well are you informed about the extent of the destruction?

UNESCO, to which the World Heritage Committee belongs, is always very close to the information sources. Yet sometimes it is not so easy to determine whether the destruction has actually taken place or whether only threats have been issued. Take the looting of the museums, for example, in which several items had been taken into safekeeping in advance. That is often difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, what we are currently seeing in Syria beggars belief. And sadly, it is not the first time something like this has happened – just think of the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan or the manuscripts in Timbuktu.

Does the fall of Palmyra indicate that we ought to be concentrating on protecting existing world heritage sites rather than nominating new ones?

Certainly both are important. But in my role as Chair I get the impression that most attention is devoted to new nominations. That is why I am working so hard to preserve existing world heritage sites. This is not only about political conflicts, for economic interests are also at stake.

Can you provide an example?

One with a positive outcome! Plans were afoot to build a road through the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. That would have put a stop to the major wildlife migration that gives the park its reputation and is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. But the road was not built in that form, which just shows the power that this World Heritage Convention wields.

This year 38 cultural and natural sites aspire to being declared world heritage sites. Are you not afraid that the large number of nominations will devalue the title?

We often say that the world heritage concept must not be allowed to become a victim of its own success. That is the very reason why outstanding universal value has to be the deciding factor for the title. We need reforms in order to preserve the credibility of the concept. We have also observed increasing politicisation in the decision‑making processes. I will present proposals on this issue in Bonn.

What danger do you see in politicisation?

I saw that very clearly during the last World Heritage Conference in Doha, where the recommendations submitted by the advisory bodies were in many cases overruled by the vote of the World Heritage Committee. That was a result of lobbying. I have been told that in previous years the same thing happened. We want to work to improve transparency in this area.

Is the criticism that the selection of world heritage sites favours Europe still justified?

There is a definite focus on Europe. I am proud to say that we have 39 world heritage sites in Germany and I would be delighted if more were to join them. Yet when I look to Africa, I am sure that we don’t have as many sites on our list as it has to offer. Sometimes this is down to a lack of financial means and know‑how. That is why it is important to support relevant initiatives with partnerships.

What chances do you think the three German candidates have in Bonn: Hamburg’s Speicherstadt with the Chilehaus, Naumburg Cathedral and the Viking sites in Northern Europe (Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, Norway)?

As Chair of the Committee I am of course obliged to remain impartial. But I am optimistic that Hamburg could make it.

Interview conducted by Martin Oehlen. Reproduced by kind permission of the Kölner Stadtanzeiger

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