Protecting cultural and national identity in times of conflict

            The word ‘culture’ is sometimes used to refer to the highest intellectual endeavours and the pursuit of perfection and beauty. As the poet and critic Matthew Arnold put it, culture is ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’. We now more commonly think of culture as being about the beliefs, customs, language and arts of a particular society, group, place, or time and the symbols and expression of shared values, traditions and customs. While culture, in its broader sense, belongs to and should be safeguarded by humanity as a whole, it also constitutes the very essence of distinct communities, from families to entire nations. Thus, culture should not be seen as a mere set of ideals, traditions and monuments, but as the core of peoples’ identity, unicity and social cohesion.

Even though things so deeply rooted in a society may seem hard, if not impossible to alter or destroy, armed conflict constantly threatens to obliterate entire communities and ethnic groups, together with their entire heritage, regardless of its nature. Ranging from the attacks conducted against the Kurds in Middle East to the destruction of Palmyra in Syria, from the ethnic cleansing of Christian communities in ISIS controlled territories to the Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, culture itself seems to be, more than ever, targeted by different forms of violence. The atrocious nature of these acts can only be equalled by their final, insidious aim: utter annihilation not only of individuals, but of entire civilisations, with a view to reverting humanity to a primordial, grotesque state. With extremism on the rise all around the Earth, a total war against culture is at hand, silently taking shape in different parts of the world. And it can no longer be overlooked.

These issues seem to be, more often than not, treated lightly by politicians, coalitions, even by the United Nations. While the Great Powers seem to only take interest in territorial gains and spreading their influence, heritage is often seen as a negligible, collateral “victim”. Therefore, the duty to safeguard the very foundations of civilisation falls on UNESCO. As a member of this committee, you should keep in mind the following questions:

  • What should the UN do in order to prevent heritage from becoming a collateral ‘victim’ in armed conflicts?
  • How could member states ensure that cultural heritage is not attacked/destroyed by armed groups?
  • How could the UN help preserve the traditions of minorities in war-torn zones (Kurds, Coptic Christians…etc.)?
  • How to best deal with phenomena such as illicit trafficking of cultural property, ethnic-fueled hatred, lack of cultural education/awareness and antiquities falsification?

Useful links:

Stopping the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

            Trafficking of cultural property is becoming an increasingly important issue day by day as it means theft of art and civilization of a certain country or region. Artifacts are often put up for sale at local markets among fakes of its kind at prices that look too good to be true. Thereby, having been bought illegally by unsuspicious tourists and not only they end up spread all around the world, away from their place of provenance. Such antique items are part of a nation’s cultural identity and heritage and should be preserved in museums or other institutions of such nature.

Taking into account countries with rich culture from all points of view such as Syria, which is already overwhelmed by the raging-on conflict, the theft of artifacts during illegal excavation has become considerably easier. Since such relics can be small enough to fit in most type of luggage, they are often smuggled in neighbouring countries and later on all around the globe, despite these countries’ attempts to stop the theft of cultural identity.

It is to be noted, however, that there are multiple ways cultural property is affected:

  • its destruction or degradation by any means could be an act of terrorism
  • Illegal excavations or other illegitimate purposeful attempts to discover relics is theft, etc.

Although all countries have acknowledged the importance of cultural identity of a nation and both 1970’s UNESCO Convention Against Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and 1995’s UNIDROIT Convention admit complementary instruments meant to solve the issue, they have not proven to be enough.

Ultimately, the UNESCO committee will attempt once again to solve this worldwide issue and to stop countries from being robbed of their cultural identity.

Keep in the mind the following questions:

  • How can the UN stop cultural property from leaving and help repatriate it to the country of provenance?
  • How can member states keep track of all artifacts belonging to them?
  • How will countries preserve all relics after repatriation?
  • How can member states educate their people to recognize an item which potentially belongs to cultural heritage and inform the authorities?

Useful links: