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Safeguarding Cultural Heritage


Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

I) Culture Blue Helmets (*)

The topic of safeguarding cultural heritage in crisis and conflict areas is at the heart of the international debate, namely at UNESCO, ever since April 2015, after the systematic attacks that were perpetrated by groups of religious extremists against cultural heritage. Far more than any past wars, natural catastrophes or barbaric acts (who could ever forget the Buddhas of Bamiyan being destroyed by the Talibans), recent attacks against millenary sites have shocked and awoken the international community for several reasons: they were accompanied by a targeted and widespread communication strategy on social media; they were rational, methodical and rigorously planned and they spoke out loud about a will unleashed with the very purpose of erasing the symbols of other cultures’ history and tradition, as well as whole populations, on ethnical or religious grounds.

This is a whole new challenge, both for countries and international organizations, namely UNESCO that, in line with its mandate, plays a leading role in safeguarding cultural heritage all around the globe ever since WWII (see, for example, the UNESCO 1954 Convention on the protection of cultural heritage in case of armed conflicts). This arduous, multi-faceted challenge cannot be met with traditional means. Ever since the first acts of terrorism against cultural heritage, UNESCO launched an awareness-raising campaign named Unite4Heritage and urged the international community to seek shared solutions and tools.

The Italian Government was the first to seize the need to step up UNESCO’s response capacity in front of similar emergency situations and to propose the establishment of ad-hoc shared instruments for the Organization and its Member States. Italy was also the first country to inscribe the safeguarding cultural heritage in crisis and conflict zones on the agenda of the Executive Board (196th session, April 2015). By doing so, our country underlined the latter’s connection with the fight against illicit trafficking; the close link between the destruction of cultural heritage and the threats against global peace and security, and culture’s unique role as an instrument for dialogue. In the following session (October 2015), Italy presented a draft Resolution, which was unanimously approved, for the establishment of a rapid intervention mechanism (Task Force) composed of national high-profile experts put at the Organization’s disposal in order to intervene in crisis and emergency situations (the so-called "Culture Blue Helmets”*).

In November of the same year, UNESCO’s 38th General Conference unanimously approved the "Strategy for the Reinforcement of UNESCO’s Action for the Protection of Culture and the Promotion of Cultural Pluralism in the Event of Armed Conflict” (Resolution 38C/48). Ever since, the Organization and its Member States may refer to this text when called to face emergencies that threaten cultural heritage and pluralism, on a short, middle and long term.

The first contribution to the Strategy is Italian. In the month of February 2016, Italy signed an MoU with UNESCO by means of which an Italian Unite4Heritage Task Force is put at the Organization’s disposal. It is composed of Carabinieri of the Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC) and civilian experts in the protection of cultural heritage. In 2016-2017, in its capacity of Chair of the “Unite4Heritage” Group of Friends, Italy fostered the adoption of an Action Plan for the implementation of the Strategy, which will be open for discussion during the 39th General Conference, in November 2017. At the same time, an extension of the Strategy to emergencies deriving from natural catastrophes will also be discussed for adoption, upon Italy’s proposal (similar interventions are successfully carried out by the Italian Carabinieri in the aftermath of earthquakes and represent an example of good practices that could be extended on the international level).

These Italian initiatives have prompted an unprecedented series of concrete measures on a bilateral and multilateral level, with multiple positive follow-ups. Numerous other Member States, in fact,  have put their national experts at the Organization’s disposal, upon Italy’s example; UNESCO has established an Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit; the safeguarding of cultural heritage and cultural heritage pluralism continues to be the red thread throughout the Organization’s work and namely its Unite4Heritage campaign.

The most relevant political result was attained at the United Nations Security Council, since two Resolutions were adopted on the traffic of cultural heritage in 2015 (2199 and 2253) and one  in 2017, for the first time on the topic of safeguarding cultural heritage and identities in crisis and conflict zones (2347). This Resolution marks a historical turning point for attaining the objectives of UNESCO’s Strategy, meaning the inclusion of culture in humanitarian actions, global security policies, peacebuilding and maintaining processes. 

(*) This definition refers to the Italian Task Force which was put at UNESCO’s disposal by means of a bilateral MoU signed by the Italian Governement and UNESCO in February 2016, and not to the UN Blue Helmets whose deployment is ruled by ad-hoc UNSC Resolutions.

II) Conservation Projects

As far as heritage safeguarding is concerned, Italy’s work is not only limited to its initiatives in the framework of UNESCO’s Executive Board and General Conference. In the last few years, Italy has financed many UNESCO restauration and conservation projects of endangered sites: in the Mediterranean (Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Petra), in Iraq, in Afghanistan (the Ghazni museum, Jam and Masala minarets), in Africa (Axum archeological park, earth architecture conservation in Ethiopia and Mali), in Asia (My Son site in Vietnam), and South-eastern Asia (Angkor Vat site in Cambodia). Furthermore, an extensive cooperation project for the safeguarding of Libya’s cultural heritage is currently under way, which fosters capacity building and training of cultural heritage professionals.

III) The Fight against Illicit Trafficking

Thanks to the full engagement of its Ministry of Culture and of the TPC Carabinieri Department, Italy is on the forefront of the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage, namely of UNESCO’s 1970 Convention.

Detailed information on the work carried out by the TPC Carabinieri Department may be found here.

IV) Underwater Cultural Heritage

By adopting the 2001 UNESCO Convention, the international community established a legal tool to protect that large share of heritage which lays on the bottom of the seas. The Convention foresees the basic principles for underwater cultural heritage safeguarding, cooperation frameworks among Member States and underwater research regulations.

Italy strongly supports its implementation, namely by means of underwater archeologic explorations and studies, and is one of the few European countries to have ratified the Convention.

V) Documentary Heritage

Italy takes part in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, which was established in 1992 in order to inventory and safeguard documentary heritage at risk of oblivion, degradation due to mishandling, time and weather conditions, or deliberate destruction. 7 Italian items have been included on the Memory of the World Register: