Preserving Iraq's Heritage | The American University of Iraq Sulaimani

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Preserving Iraq's Heritage

Text of speech by Axel Plathe - director of UNESCO Iraq - at the First Annual Cultural Heritage Symposium hosted by The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). 

Preserving Iraq’s heritage. An account of UNESCO’s action”


I am honored to present to you UNESCO’s action to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

Our commitment to safeguard this unique and outstanding heritage is longstanding and consistent.

Our action has focused on activities that range from urgent safeguarding to technical assistance for the sustainable management of Iraq's cultural treasures.

Allow me to start with a short historical review.

In the aftermath of the 2003 conflict, and as a result of the appalling heritage destruction and looting, UNESCO's role was critical in addressing emergency needs.

This role was further consolidated with UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which requested all Member States to take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return of Iraqi cultural property, establishing a prohibition on trade in, or transfer of such items, and calling upon UNESCO's assistance in the implementation of this decision.

The International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of Iraqi Cultural Heritage was created, with the mandate of advising on appropriate measures to improve and reinforce international cooperation for safeguarding Iraq’s heritage.

The UNESCO Office for Iraq was established in the same year. Since then, it has implemented a wide spectrum of activities and projects, which gradually evolved from addressing urgent needs to dealing with long term perspectives.

A main trigger was of course the dramatic damages inflicted to the National Museum in 2003.  These events were instrumental for UNESCO to strengthen its efforts to help protect, conserve and rehabilitate Iraq’s heritage.

Among these actions was a Japanese funded project for the restoration of laboratories of the National Museum.  Actions  also included the organization of training workshops and awareness raising initiatives to combat illicit traffic of cultural property, along with providing legal assistance on restitution cases and assessing damages, with funds from the Czech Republic, Norway and Poland.

Television spots were produced on the dangers of illicit trafficking, along with an infographic film that aimed at sensitizing Iraqi youth to the importance of protecting their heritage.

Other dramatic events were the bombings of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006 and June 2007. These attacks did not only result in physically destroying parts of the building.  They also fueled widespread violence and sectarian hostility.

As a consequence, the project for the Restoration of the Al-Askari Shrine that started in 2008 with funding from the European Union and the Government of Iraq, aimed at the shrine's restoration, while at the same time promoting national reconciliation, in line with UNESCO’s vision of culture as a source of identity and a tool for social cohesion.

UNESCO has been also supporting cultural heritage conservation and management at several other significant sites in Iraq, with the overall goal of promoting respect for cultural diversity and heritage, and as a factor for socio-economic development.

A series of major projects for the revitalization of the Erbil Citadel was launched in 2007 with funding from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. Our engagement contributed to the inscription of Erbil Citadel in the World Heritage List in 2014.

In Erbil and elsewhere, a major focus of our activities has been on strengthening capacities in the conservation and management of sites. Of these, are the Iraqi Marshlands, and the Wadi al Salam cemetery in Najaf, both currently on the tentative list for World Heritage nomination.

Promoting the visibility of Iraq's cultural heritage has been one of the major actions of UNESCO in recent years.

Within the framework of the project for Najaf, that I just mentioned, a comprehensive assessment of unique manuscript collections was conducted along with the development of a training programme for their conservation.

The book “Najaf: the Gate of Wisdom” was published, while the publication of the volume on the history and development of the city is in process.

Within the context of the project “Modernizing the Sulymaniyah Museum” a master plan was prepared and a pre-figuration exhibition was installed with funding from the European Union and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are a few highlights of our work in Iraq since 2003.  They all replied to the threats that conflict and insecurity inflicted to the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the country.

We all have observed with chock and horror how the escalation in violence since June 2014 has put at risk hundreds of archaeological and religious sites, as well as museum and manuscript collections.

As I speak, ISIL continues to destroy sites of religious and cultural significance, causing immeasurable damage to Iraq’s historical and cultural legacy. Between late February and March, there was again an escalation of violent attacks to the ancient archaeological and religious heritage. On 26 February, ISIL posted online a video featuring its destruction of the artefacts of the museum in Mosul and the statues of Nergal Gate, which belong to the ancient site of Nineveh. This was followed by attacks on the archaeological sites of Nimrud, Hatra and Khorsabad.

ISIL also desecrated and destroyed other religious and historic sites of significance in Mosul, including the thousand-year old mosque of Imam Muhsin, the ancient al-Khither Sunni mosque, the Sheikh Mahmoud Sunni shrine, and Christian religious places including churches, a cemetery and the monastery of Mar Bahnam. 

On 22 March, the destruction of an ancient minaret, which is of great significance to the Yazidi community in Sinjar, was reported. Between 21 and 22 February, ISIL burnt thousands of historical books and manuscripts looted from bookshops and the Mosul Public Library, which it later demolished. 

The consequences of these attacks are tremendous, both physically and psychologically.

At the onset of the present crisis, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called for an emergency expert meeting that took place on 17 July 2014 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.  It resulted in the “Emergency Response Action Plan for the Safeguarding of Iraq's Cultural Heritage”.  The plan serves today as a blueprint for international action.

However, we rapidly recognized that the implementation of a strong response to the attacks on heritage is a great challenge. 

This is due to several reasons:

  • Generally, there has been a lag in risk preparedness.
  • Complete and updated inventories of cultural objects and full documentation of sites are missing.
  • As onsite monitoring is not possible, exact information on damages to sites is insufficient or, as in the case of the extent of illicit traffic, often non-existent.
  • And the impact of the rupture in intangible heritage on cultural diversity is difficult to assess.

Nevertheless, UNESCO has been able to work through international legal instruments and legislations to address both the destruction of sites and the illicit trafficking of cultural objects.

In addition to the ban on the trade and transfer of Iraqi cultural property that has been in effect since May 2003 in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1483, Security Council Resolution 2199 was issued on 12 February 2015.  It reaffirms the decision of the previous resolution requesting again all Member States to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.

In the framework of the implementation of these two Security Council Resolutions, UNESCO monitors virtual and traditional sales and public auctions in close cooperation with INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization.

UNESCO has alerted UN Member States, cultural institutions, the art markets, museums and auction houses and called upon them to support an international concerted effort to protect Iraqi heritage that is in jeopardy from pillage.

In order to raise public awareness on this topic, a specific webpage has been created and a multidirectional outreach campaign was launched in late 2014. This campaign uses different means of communication in order to broadly disseminate UNESCO’s message, highlighting the links between the illicit trafficking in cultural property and armed conflict.

Furthermore, on 26 February 2015, and immediately following the posting of the video that showed the attacks on the museum in Mosul and the site of Ninewa, the Director General of UNESCO requested the President of Security Council to convene an urgent Security Council meeting.

The Director General also contacted the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to open investigations of heritage destruction in Iraq as war crimes, in accordance with Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Within this challenging context, and with support from Japan, and Norway, UNESCO has embarked again on responding to the current crisis, through concrete projects addressing cultural heritage at risk, and awareness raising, respectively.

These actions are concrete responses to the current crisis.

They will help enhance monitoring, as and where feasible.

They will help better explore the possibilities offered by satellite imagery.

And they will help update inventories and documentation of museum collections and sites, and establish emergency plans and risk mitigation measures.

But we also need to start planning the recovery phase.  This will be a critical time, during which the exact extend of the damages to the tangible and intangible heritage has to be assessed and restoration has to be started.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On 28 March, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova launched the campaign #Unite4Heritage at the University of Baghdad.

#Unite4Heritage uses the power of social networks for young people to raise their voice and take action for safeguarding heritage at risk, in Iraq and elsewhere.  This can provide a strong counter-narrative to sectarian propaganda.

On 28 March, the day of the launch of #Unite4Heritage, young Iraqis showed great determination in standing up for the protection of the heritage of humanity. Their engagement gives hope for a recovery where the power of culture can indeed play an instrumental role in fostering social cohesion and in promoting reconciliation and understanding.

This cohesion, Ladies and Gentlemen, is at stake as extremism destroys heritage.

UNESCO's work in Iraq is our response to extremism.

This is how we are addressing the crisis.

Thank you.