UNESCO’s Dilemma

August 25, 2015

Amidst widespread concern about the world economy and China’s seeming collapse, it was hard for UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to get a message out about another ISIS travesty in the Middle East yesterday. Nevertheless, Irina Bokova, the director general, asked the international community to “stand united against . . . persistent cultural cleansing” by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where some of the world’s most important archaeological sites have been looted and ravaged. Last week the militant group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, Palmyra’s heroic keeper of historic sites. Over the weekend it was learned that the group had also destroyed the best preserved temple in the ancient city, as well as a fifth-century monastery nearby.

War and terrorism have wreaked havoc on ancient cultural artifacts for much of the last 30 years, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilization of the Middle East. As UN peacekeepers struggled to keep warring factions in check, its cultural defenders were caught off guard by the new vehemence of extremist factions toward cultural symbols such as the Mostar Bridge. Artifact conservation had heretofore concerned itself with saving ruins from weather, neglect, and development. Now the threats became more immediate: mortars, hammers, bombs, and pure hatred.

My students in CHAPS, a program for cultural heritage preservation at Rutgers University, are acutely aware of UNESCO’s challenge. Their thesis topics now favor things like climate change and conflict resolution, factors that weren’t on my radar screen when I was a graduate student. They understand that without new tools for conserving world heritage sites, including political and social instruments, there will be little chance of saving many of the world’s most precious historic buildings and cities from destruction during the next century.

UNESCO has never been high on the United Nations priority list for funding or development, so there is little wonder that it cannot command attention when crises develop, even ones that threaten our common heritage so directly as those in Syria and Iraq. How can this watchdog for cultural sites conduct its business amid the cacophony of voices crying for social justice, economic equality, and political change in the world? The dilemma is stark: cultural heritage is more important than ever to humans looking for identities in a globalizing economy, yet that very heritage is lowest in priority among international political issues compared to things like terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, hunger, and crushing poverty.

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