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Safeguarding cultural property that combatants aim to damage encompasses part of larger endeavors to defend human rights and universal values, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week, calling on the international community to intensify efforts to protect such treasures and end their illicit trafficking. “Combatants that attack cultural treasures want to damage more than artifacts – they aim to tear at the fabric of societies,” the UN chief said in remarks presented by Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at a high-level event entitled “Protecting Cultural Heritage – an Imperative for Humanity: Acting together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist groups and organized crime.” For the first time, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened a trial for the destruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu. “And protection is about more than shielding stones and buildings – it is a part of our effort to defend human rights and save people’s lives,” he added. The event – held at UN headquarters in New York on September 22 – was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Italy and Jordan, in collaboration with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNESCO and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Lamenting that “we have all been devastated” by attacks on cultural heritage in the Middle East, North Africa, Yemen, Mali and beyond, the Secretary-General said that using such a tactic of war is also a war crime. “Throughout history, the enemies of human dignity have targeted symbols of knowledge, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. These are attacks on our universal values,” he stressed. The UN, for its part, has been responding by taking action to restore and rebuild damaged sites. In Timbuktu, UNESCO – the UN body responsible for identifying significant cultural landmarks – helped to rebuild 14 mausoleums. In addition, hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts have been recovered, Mr. Ban said. “Perpetrators are being held accountable. For the first time, the International Criminal Court has opened a trial for the destruction of the mausoleums. This can help an end to impunity,” he said. Mr. Ban was referring to the trial, on 22 August 2016, of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, which opened before Trial Chamber VIII at the ICC in The Hague, the Netherlands. Al Mahdi, a Malian national, “admitted guilt as to the war crime consisting in the destruction of historical and religious monuments in Timbuktu (Mali), between around 30 June 2012 and 11 July 2012,” read a statement from the ICC, following the opening of the trial. It was the first international trial focusing on the destruction of historical and religious monuments, and the first ICC case where the defendant made an admission of guilt. Security Council resolution 2199 (2015) on halting the financing of terrorism tackles the specific issue of illicit trafficking in cultural objects. So far, more than three dozen countries have taken measures to curb the plague, the Secretary-General said, adding that with the support of the World Customs Organizations, UNODC and INTERPOL, “blood antiquities” have been seized in a number of countries. “Today I call on the international community to intensify the global response to attacks on cultural heritage. We have a strong legal basis that we must apply through action to protect treasures and end illicit trafficking,” Mr. Ban said. “When we ‘unite4heritage’, we will advance our broader campaign for a more just, peaceful and sustainable future.” This past June, UNESCO and the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced they are working together in the fight against impunity for deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, which they said could constitute a war crime. In addition, in February, UNESCO and the Government of Italy agreed to establish a task force of experts focusing on the conservation of cultural heritage affected by crises around the world. During the final week of September, the 4th session of the subsidiary committee of UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property will, among other agenda items, focus on issues such as online sales, a new international mechanism on the repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains, and money laundering. An action plan for the return of cultural objects illegally offered for sale will also be examined.   About the author: Akshan de Alwis is the UN Correspondent for the Diplomatic Courier and a student at Columbia University.   Photo Credit: World Heritage Routes Travel

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.