PRINT March 2017


“Safeguarding Cultural Heritage”

Translation of letter concerning ISIS Antiquities Division leadership, November 21, 2014. Original document obtained in a May 16, 2015, US Special Forces raid of Abu Sayyaf’s Syrian compound and made available on the US Department of State website.

THIS PAST DECEMBER in Abu Dhabi, a group of high-level dignitaries convened to discuss an especially horrible facet of the current crisis of Islamist terrorism: the systematic and wholesale destruction of sites and artifacts of world heritage. The conference, “Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage,” was held at the opulent Emirates Palace, where its hosts, France’s President François Hollande and the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, gave remarks, and Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, and ministers from countries around the world delivered speeches.

The current destruction of cultural sites is unprecedented, and differs crucially from the usual collateral damage of warfare. As the tally of eradication mounts—the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the Northwest Palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, the Mosque of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh, the ancient city of Hatra, fourteen of the mausoleums of Timbuktu, all in the past ten years—it has become clear that the devastation is not random but is the result of programmatic cultural cleansing. To quote a 2015 ISIS recruiting document: “Not only will we spill your blood, but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and, most painfully, convert your children.”

Nonstate armed groups have both economic and ideological reasons to carry on the destruction, and have developed highly organized systems for the pillaging and razing of sites. ISIS, for example, manages the looting of artifacts via a mundane system of permits, for which members may bid. The organization receives somewhere between 20 to 50 percent of the amount of the sale of each looted artifact in its version of the historical khums tax. Reports put ISIS’s annual haul from the illegal antiquities trade in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What to do in the face of this staggering situation? This question fueled the conference. Its first goal was to launch a $100 million fund to help secure and—in the worst-case scenario—rehabilitate cultural-heritage sites. Based in Geneva, the fund will run as a private-public partnership, with UNESCO and other NGOs as advisers, and with contributions from governments and private philanthropists. France and the UAE announced that they were giving $30 million and $15 million respectively, and the international ministers in attendance likewise pledged their commitment. The second aim was more workaday: sharing knowledge about how to protect and restore sites before, during, and after conflict. This includes the contentious matter of “safe havens,” a program laid out in the 1954 Hague Convention by which countries safeguard items of world-cultural significance that are in danger of being looted or destroyed in situ—a more regulated and positive use of the kind of “safeguarding” that helped define the colonial era. The museum that is the recipient of the artifact keeps it on view—i.e., in the public eye—and returns the items once the home country is deemed stable. Recently, during the 2007 intifada, the safe-haven program allowed the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva to protect hundreds of artifacts from Gaza; the museums will return them later this year to a newly built facility in the Palestinian territory.

Accepted as a last-resort option, the program encounters stumbling blocks in practice. Perhaps most critically, there is no international legal framework in place that determines how restitution actually occurs. One delegate I spoke to said, “How do you decide when a country is safe? It is difficult to take politics out of the equation.” The means of actually removing artifacts in wartime is also unresolved. Currently, a state makes the application to another state for safe haven. But during conflict, this process becomes murky. Who from Syria would have called about saving Palmyra? And would foreign countries actually put boots on the ground to protect culture, amid the other humanitarian demands of war?

The conference aimed to help develop international, though nonbinding, guidelines. Jean-Yves Marin, director of the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, stressed that safe havens needed to be accomplished in a bilateral manner—“when no one is forced”—under a legal framework. Others noted that actors such as museum directors or local officials should also be empowered to make the calls for safe havens.

Indeed, it is the local populations, in countless examples in Iraq, Mali, Syria, and elsewhere, who have put their own lives at risk to protect art and architecture. Curators have smuggled out scrolls and hidden them in their homes; local citizens have covered statues too heavy to move with sandbags to limit the damage from shelling. In most conflict situations, the international community can do very little except monitor and then disseminate information to their own troops. Empowering local communities with expertise in protecting heritage sites is also a means of reversing the flow of capital and knowledge from the West to the Middle East and South-east Asia. “[This] fund will only work if the people in countries such as ours have the training and commitment to work with the agencies managing the fund,” said Salahuddin Rabbani, the Afghan minister of foreign affairs, in his speech. “Comprehensive inventories of cultural heritage need to be national, not just international.”

The conference was by turns heartening and distressing. The audience sat transfixed during a dry PowerPoint presentation by archaeologist Michael Danti, who laid out, in stark numerical terms, the escalating rate of destruction, which is projected to increase in the coming year. While the display of political will was inspiring, it’s time to turn diplomatic discussion into urgent action.

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi and the author of Contemporary Art and Digital Culture (Routledge, 2017).

Read Nasser Rabbat’s article on ISIS and Palmyra (November 2015).

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