Cultural sites such as the pyramids of Giza are thousands of years old. Even for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, they were relics of a distant past. We still find graffiti on these monuments left by visiting Roman tourists.
To protect our cultural heritage for future generations, the whole world must do its part.
Governments, scientists, and all of civil society. We must act as one if we want to succeed. This is why our discussions today are so important.
Sadly, the topic has largely disappeared from the public consciousness. The images of the destroyed Temple of Bel in Palmyra or the ruined Ancient City of Aleppo are fading away.
But our cultural heritage is still under threat.
In Syria, no lasting ceasefire has been reached almost ten years after the civil war began.
The so-called Islamic State is weakened but has not been defeated. And in Yemen, cultural heritage which is several millennia old could be destroyed forever.
Meanwhile, the illegal trade of cultural objects continues to flourish. Recently, the so-called ILLICID study was published in Germany.
The results are startling:
Only 2.1 percent of cultural objects from the eastern Mediterranean region which are offered on the German market are being traded legally. For objects from Iraq, this figure is just 0.4 percent. That alone tells us all we need to know – just four in a thousand items are being traded legally!
Of course, new challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic are taking up a great deal of time and energy. But while we address these immediate crises, we must not forget our long-term responsibilities. The protection of cultural heritage is one of them.
The good news is that there has been progress in recent years.
I would particularly like to mention the two most significant achievements:
1.) The EU Regulation introduced in April 2019 to prevent the illegal import of cultural goods.
2.) The Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property, known as the Nicosia Convention.
Meanwhile, a powerful message has been sent by the EU Advisory Mission for Iraq. This is the first civilian CSDP mission in the history of the EU which includes the protection of cultural goods in its mandate.
All of this is important. But it is not enough.
In May 2017, my predecessor Maria Böhmer and the Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini wrote a joint letter. They proposed that the EU should fully participate in the implementation of Resolution 2347 on the protection of cultural property in armed conflicts. The EU has all the necessary tools to do so.
Today, more than three years later, we are still a long way from reaching our goal.
We need a comprehensive EU approach. To make this possible, we must take the entire conflict cycle into account. From prevention to post-conflict management.
The goal is to stop the financing of terrorists through the sale of cultural objects.
But we must give equal consideration to the significance of cultural heritage for societies.
This must be enshrined in EU legislation and put into practice at EU level.
Because cultural heritage represents more than just buildings or customs. And its protection involves more than just emergency measures. Cultural heritage can help create a sense of identity.
It can strengthen social cohesion within societies. It can inspire respect for the achievements of past generations and other cultures.
Above all, transnational cooperation in the protection of cultural heritage is a way of building mutual trust. This is a core value of foreign policy. Particularly in these times of widespread uncertainty.
It is therefore crucial for the EU to take decisive action and pool the capacities of its member States.
In Germany, for example, we are currently working on setting up a mechanism for saving cultural goods in acute danger via a rapid support group. I would be delighted to see EU cooperation on this mechanism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We Europeans must redouble our efforts to promote the issue of cultural heritage, including via multilateral forums. That naturally includes UNESCO. But also other UN organisations right up to the United Nations Security Council.
We hope to give fresh impetus to these efforts, particularly in light of our current Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Next week, together with the European Commission, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, we will hold another international conference focusing on the protection of cultural heritage.
As we take over the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, we will also be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.
This makes it the perfect time to focus on the multilateral dimension of the protection of cultural heritage. Because this is a duty that all of us share. In the Ruhr area, where I’m from, one would say: “eine Ewigkeitsaufgabe” – a responsibility that will never go away. And that is a good thing.