“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. This was the guiding principle when UNESCO was founded 75 years ago almost to the day. This principle is as important today as it was back then.
Cultural cooperation is not about pointing out the importance of one’s own culture. It is about building bridges and opening the way for dialogue. Cultural policy is about creating space in which people can cooperate across borders. This fosters understanding for and with one another.
Also when it comes to protecting cultural heritage there is much more at stake than just stones and traditions. What is at stake is political and cultural identity and our cultural heritage as shared by humanity.
The sense of wonder one feels when standing in front of the Taj Mahal knows no nationality. As well as the expertise needed to preserve cultural heritage knows none. The overwhelming sympathy and solidarity expressed following disasters such as the explosion in Beirut and the fire in Notre-Dame in Paris provide impressive proof.
Preserving culture is a task that can only be performed through close cooperation based on trust at the multilateral level.
UNESCO is the beating heart of cultural heritage protection at multilateral level. The central bloodstreams that fill it with life are the cultural conventions. One of the most important legal frameworks is the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference on 14 November 1970, almost exactly 50 years ago.
Since then, 140 States Parties have ratified. This is a broad consensus amongst the international community and a great reason to celebrate today!
The Convention sets standards for all State Parties. Germany ratified the Convention quite late, not until 2007, but we have increased our national provisions implementing the Convention by a new law in 2016.
Based on this Act, Foreign Minister Maas returned a valuable atlas to his colleague in Cairo last year. The atlas had been illegally removed from Egypt. This step was a great success expressing the importance attached to cultural heritage and the need to protect it.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The founding of UNESCO and the United Nations was a response of the international community to the crimes, horror and destruction unleashed by Germany in WWII.
The multilateral system that we, the international community, have set up is not perfect. But it is the best option we have to guarantee peace and prosperity in the world.
Today, 75 years after the founding of the United Nations, the system is under pressure. An increasing number of states are hiding and cutting ties. The heartbeat of multilateralism is faltering.
Yet, one thing remains absolutely clear: on our own, we will not be able to solve all the challenges we face. This is true of both corona and climate change.
We need to boost the pulse of the multilateral system. To me, that means above all: the system urgently needs oxygen. Multilateralism at state level must be complemented by multilateralism at civil society level, feeding ideas and blueprints into the global system.
I firmly believe that international cultural cooperation and in particular multilateral cooperation on cultural protection can send exactly the right signal.
This conference is an important step. The 50th anniversary of the 1970 UNESCO Convention is a good time to reflect on how we can improve its impact. And how we can implement the protection of cultural property more successfully in the multilateral framework.
That is the declared aim not just of Germany, but of the EU as a whole.
The objective is clear: we want to and can make the protection of cultural heritage into a real pacemaker for the multilateral system. Let’s use this opportunity together.