Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict: A Dialogue on Emergency Efforts

Categories: Collective & Human Security,Dialogue Snapshots,Regional Policy Dialogues

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For any observer of Taliban reign in Afghanistan, the images of the collapsing Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 must be emblematic of the high price of war and extremism on humankind’s common cultural past. Likewise, for the current generation that is witnessing one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history, the explosion of Palmyra is an unforgettable image that will always remind us of the thousands of other atrocities committed during the Syrian war. The destruction brought by years of armed conflict on the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria is almost unfathomable. The emergence of Da’esh, the term for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria currently used by the U.S. Secretary of State, has exacerbated the threat to cultural heritage in a region considered to be the cradle of civilization, thus international cooperation on its protection remains paramount.

To this end, the Hollings Center for International Dialogue collaborated with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian Institution to organize a dialogue entitled Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict: A Dialogue on Emergency Efforts in Istanbul from 14‐17 October, 2015. The objective of the dialogue was to bridge the gap between laws, statements and action with actionable policy recommendations. The organizers also aimed to create a network of practitioners (preservationists, archeologists, and anthropologists), policymakers, and representatives from international civil society organizations that work in cultural heritage preservation.

Key points worth highlighting from the dialogue were:

  • Much of the international media attention has been on tangible cultural heritage such as monuments, historic sites, and antiquities. While this has been instrumental in raising awareness, there are a host of intangible cultural elements that are under threat due to war and displacement.
  • Emergency preparedness and disaster response are essential and need to be put into action plans and budgets at times of normalcy and peace.
  • Cultural institutions such as museums need institutional reform to ensure better knowledge transfer across generations as well as amongst themselves.
  • Technology is a double-edged sword: while it is helpful in knowing and advocating about what is going on with regards to cultural heritage, it might be giving extremists the platform they need to prove their destructive capability to the world. Some technologies are still extremely expensive and thus harder to employ in a war and poverty-stricken region.

As an extension of this dialogue, we also held a public event on the issue on October 15 in Istanbul. Click here to learn more about the event, or to watch a highlight video from the panel discussion.