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UNESCO chief calls for ‘protected cultural zones’ in war-torn Iraq, Syria
an article by UN News Centre

Denouncing the persecution of minorities, attacks on cultural heritage and illicit trafficking in cultural properties in Iraq and Syria as “part of a strategy of deliberate cultural cleansing of exceptional violence,” the head of the United Nations cultural agency today urged the creation of “protected cultural zones” around heritage sites in the two crisis-riven countries.


Photo: UNESCO

click on photo to enlarge

“It is not too late to take action,” Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said, adding “there can be no purely military solution to this crisis. To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

Opening an international conference at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on threats to cultural heritage and diversity in Iraq and Syria, Ms. Bokova suggested a start could be made with the city of Aleppo, and especially the Umayyad Mosque, a highly iconic site located in the World Heritage Syrian city of Aleppo.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Ms. Bokova’s call to place cultural diversity at the heart of humanitarian and peace building efforts in Syria and Iraq was strongly endorsed by the UN, adding that “the protection of cultural heritage is a security imperative.”

Both Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, and Nikolay Mladenov, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), emphasized the need to integrate education and culture into emergency measures, along with humanitarian aid, to protect human rights and vulnerable civilian populations.

Mr. de Mistura argued that protected cultural zones could be created through a “bottom up plan of action,” building on the fact that the people of Syria have had their fill of violence, bloodshed, and suffering, while Mr. Mladenov denounced terrorists who resort to genocide, the enslavement of women, with blatant disregard for human lives and human rights as they seek to destroy the State of Iraq. He said that cultural diversity need to be preserved not only for peace building but also for the whole development and stability in the region.

The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, said Iraq’s “soul” was the heritage of its successive and diverse cultures, which had made a tremendous contribution to humanity over more than 6,000 years. He urged the international community to help Iraq resist its enemies and pledged his Government’s support for cultural diversity and pluralism.

Among other issues discussed by the 500 decision-makers, experts and representatives from both Iraq and Syria, were the need to implement the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its additional protocols, as well as to end impunity against deliberate attacks on cultural heritage – a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Participants expressed a strong support to the proposal of an international ban on the trading of antiquities from Syria, in line with the recommendation by the Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council.

(Click here for a Spanish version of this article)

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In the following article, Wilhelm Langthaler, a Co-convener of PeaceinSyria.org comments on the spirit emerging from the “All Sides Consultation for Political Solution” in Vienna.

Now that the “All sides Consultation for a Political Solution in Syria” is accomplished and is being recognized by all the participants as a success that deserves continuation, the time has come to draw a balance not only of the conference itself, but also of its wider significance. The very fact that around two dozen people from the most diverse and conflicting backgrounds of Syrian society came together and consulted how to overcome the civil war tearing apart the country is extraordinary. But the spirit emerging from the debates reaches far beyond the objective of this single event, giving hope that a movement for a political solution is gaining momentum.
Exchange among the people – not power-brokering

First of all, let us recall the aim of the “All Sides Consultation for a Political Solution” which took place in the “Peace Castle Schlaining” close to Vienna, Austria, from 7-10 March, 2014. The idea was to give a voice to Syrian society in its full diversity, voices emerging from the people who have been silenced and excluded by the powerful. It was not intended to hold negotiations between the conflicting sides and their global and regional sponsors as has failed in Geneva. A consultative forum of personalities not directly representing the sides involved but indeed representing the societal richness was called upon to explore ways to stop the catastrophic bloodshed.

Thus we were not in search of sophisticated and well-balanced formulae of compromise pleasing the foreign powers involved (something which might, however, be necessary to reach in other places), but to give answers concerning how the full rights of the people might be guaranteed. The quest for these rights is what is thought to have sparked the conflict and is at the same time key to ending what has turned into a fratricidal war pitting the components of society against the other, a conflict additionally fuelled by massive international involvement. As Naser al Ghazali, one of the Syrian members of the preparatory committee hailing from Daraa, put it in his introduction: “Democratic rights are not negotiable. . ...more.


This report was posted on December 6, 2014.