Statement of H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
At a Holy See Mission Sponsored Side Event on
Protecting Endangered Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict
United Nations, New York, 19 April 2017
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am happy to welcome you this afternoon to this event on the very relevant theme of protecting endangered cultural heritage in times of conflict.
Last November 30, in anticipation of the International conference on the protection of cultural patrimony in conflict zones that took place December 2nd and 3rd in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis said that today’s subject is “unfortunately dramatically current.” He underlined that the “protection of cultural treasures constitutes an essential dimension in the defense of the human being” and emphasized that guarding cultural heritage is a crucial “new step in the process of the implementation of human rights.”
I would like to share with you this afternoon a reflection on the topic structured around those three affirmations of Pope Francis.
First, the need to protect cultural patrimony is a dramatically current concern. In recent years, we have seen the destruction and desecration of sanctuaries in Mosul, Palmyra, Tikrit, Timbuktu, Bamiyan and so many other places. We have seen libraries and archives destroyed; precious manuscripts burned; scientific collections razed; priceless artifacts ransacked; mosques, churches, monasteries, archaeological and cultural sites leveled; and architectural, artistic and historic monuments bulldozed or blown up.
It’s been part of a coordinated two-part strategy: to destroy for propaganda purposes famous monuments, sculptures and temples that could not be sold on the black market, as an international spectacle to demoralize opponents and recruit new members; and while those atrocities provide a smokescreen, to plunder and sell smaller, less conspicuous antiquities to raise money to fuel acts of terrorism, or destroy huge monuments and “retail” the broken pieces to the traffickers.
While Al Qaeda has depended on the support of rich benefactors to fuel its terrorist activities, ISIL has plundered, kidnapped and extorted its way to wealth, and the industrial plundering of blood antiquities has become a key part of its economic strategy, with its so called “ministry of antiquities” even licensing looting excavators, taxing them 20-50 percent, and facilitating for them a trafficking network on the black market with elements of organized crime across the globe. It’s a deliberate, systematic war strategy, what UNESCO has aptly called “cultural cleansing” and what the UN General Assembly has said is tantamount under international law to a “war crime.” That it is happening in the Middle East, which is so central to the history of civilization and of religion, makes it all the more repulsive. Recent studies have noted that, after oil, it is ISIL’s second most lucrative financing scheme, estimated at billions of dollars a year, fueling more terrorism and more cultural destruction. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations says that antiquities crime has become one of the top five global crimes.
So what we’re dealing with is, indeed, dramatically current.
Second, Pope Francis stressed that the protection of cultural treasures is an essential dimension in the defense of the human person. It’s an attempt on the part of terrorists to erase history, to deprive people of their roots and identity, to strike at their past, their future and their hope. It is an attack not only on things however precious, but on the people of the past, present and future who value them. It is an assault on the cultural, educational and religious environment they need for their integral development.
When Pope Francis came to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2015, he spoke to this human dimension, when he alluded to “the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries where Christians together with other cultural or ethnic groups and even members of the majority religion … have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property.”
Cultural property is one of the basic elements of a civilization, making the willful annihilation of precious culture treasures almost genocidal in motivation. Destroying people’s historical rootedness is directed toward eradicating an essential part of their humanity. That’s why what we’re confronting is far more than a cultural matter. It’s a crime against humanity through the systematic impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the world.
For me, the attack on humanity through the systematic destruction or marketeering of cultural heritage was illustrated in all its barbarity in what happened to Khalid al-Asaad, the leading Syrian archaeologist and historian who had spent his life preserving Palmyra’s cultural treasures. At 82 years old — 82 years old — ISIL tortured him for a month to try to get him to divulge the location of hidden sites and objects, before decapitating him and stringing him upside down to appall the world. The attack on the sacredness of the human being and the desecration of what he holds dear go together. Destroying culture and the ones who value that culture are part of the same desacralized and dehumanizing sadism.
This realization has to elicit a determined response in all sectors. Perhaps at one time the purchase of stolen antiquities could be rationalized as a victimless crime, or even a virtuous act, ensuring that priceless artifacts be redeemed and preserved. But we now know that the purchase of such blood antiquities is fueling terrorist acts throughout the globe and enabling further such desecrations of cultural heritage. It must be stopped.
That brings me to the third point Pope Francis made: guarding cultural heritage must be treated as a crucial new step in the protection of human rights.
There have long been principles for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict, going back to the Conventions of The Hague in 1899 and 1907, supplemented by the 1954 and 1999 protocols, which likewise require the protection of human life, but it is clear that ISIL does not abide by such principles of basic humanity.
Thankfully, the United Nations has gotten involved in a concerted way.
The Security Council, in multiple resolutions over the past two years — most notably 2199, 2249, 2253, 2322 and 2347, adopted last Month— has explicitly condemned ISIL’s destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria and Iraq and its profiteering from cultural treasures, has put mechanisms in place to prohibit the trade of cultural property to finance terrorism, and has urged states to bolster cooperation to prevent and combat the trafficking of blood antiquities.
The General Assembly has deplored attacks on religious places, shrines and cultural sites as violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and has said that such intentional desecrations to buildings dedicated to religion, education, art or historic monuments may amount to war crimes.
The International Criminal Court in 2016 obtained its first ever conviction for “cultural destruction,” sentencing Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi of the Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Ansar Dine to nine years in prison for destroying the ancient cultural sites in Timbuktu, a judgment that highlighted the gravity of such crimes, began to build a body of jurisprudence, and sent a broader message to those carrying out such crimes today that acts against the heritage of peoples and humanity will not go unpunished.
International partnerships have been formed involving UNESCO, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, governmental customs services, international and regional organizations, museums, art dealers and antiquities collectors, the tourism industry, archaeologists, transportation companies, insurance outfits, anti-terrorism experts and media leaders that have been seeking collaboratively to prevent the destruction and illegal trafficking of cultural treasures, to interdict the illicit transit of such patrimony, to cut off the financing of terrorism and organized crime and to raise public awareness about trafficking of cultural property and its prevention. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict areas, launched just a month ago, to provide funding, expertise and political support, is a big step forward.
At the same time, however, there’s a need to move beyond words to effective action. Security Council Resolution 2253, adopted unanimously last December, itself expressed “increasing concern about the lack of implementation of resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011), and 2199 (2015), including the insufficient level of reporting by Member States to the Committee on the measures they have taken to comply with its provisions” and about the failure of Member States “to take the necessary measures to fulfill their obligation under paragraph 12 of resolution 2199 to report to the Committee interdictions … of antiquities, as well as the outcome of proceedings brought against individuals and entities as a result of any such activity.”
It’s clear by such an evaluation that much more obviously needs to be done to protect the human rights of people to their cultural heritage, a treasure bequeathed to them by former generations for which they are meant to be custodians for future ones.
Indeed, the protection of cultural patrimony in conflict zones is, as Pope Francis said on November 30, an unfortunately dramatic current issue. It’s a war not just against irreplaceable treasures but against those who treasure them, have treasured them, and are meant to treasure them in future generations.
Just as there is a Responsibility to Protect people from atrocity crimes, so there is a duty, I believe, to defend the cultural dimension of persons and civilizations from the desecration now taking place and to promote and protect the human rights of people to their history, identity, environment, places of learning, worship, inspiration and more.
I hope that today’s event will move us all to do everything we can to respond to this dramatically current issue with dramatically persevering resolve. Thank you very much.