Focus on UNESCO and the protection of Syrian cultural heritage.

UNESCO and the protection of Syrian cultural heritage.

An interview with Cristina Menegazzi, head of the « emergency safeguarding of the Syrian heritage project ».

One  of  Patrimoine  sans  frontières’  (PSF-Heritage  without  Borders)  original  missions    was, and still is, to inform the international community and the general public of the  threats on cultural heritage. For 22 years, PSF has been trying to be the spokesperson for endangered heritage. While standing with the local populations, in crisis and post-crisis  situations, PSF aims at leading them to recognise their cultural heritage, a necessary process to see through the transition between the emergency and the development phases.

While deploring the humanitarian crisis, Patrimoine sans frontières released an alert on   the destruction of Aleppo’s heritage on the 30th of August 2012 (to read here). From then on, PSF has been working to implement a heritage awareness project for the Syrian population. Since May 2014, such a project is being developed, thanks to Heritage for Peace’s partnership.   

On the 26th and 27th of May 2014, UNESCO organised an international conference entitled “Rallying the International Community to Safeguard Syria’s Cultural Heritage”. It gathered local, national and international actors that work in Syria and in the entire world to protect the Syrian heritage. The aim of this meeting was to consider the implementation of the “Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage” project funded by the European Union and the Flemish government.

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With  a  twenty-years’  experience  working  in  international  organisations  such  as   ICOM, ICCROM and today UNESCO, Cristina Menegazzi is a specialist in the field of  conservation and preservation of cultural goods and  in  cultural  heritage  risk  management.  In  this interview,  she  presents  the  main  actors  for  heritage  protection  in  the  complex  Syrian situation.  

Since the interview was made, on July 3rd, 2014, two platforms have been put together: “Roster of experts” helps gathering actors engaged or interested in Syrian heritage protection and “Information Sharing Network” is drawn to broadcast Syrian heritage news and documents (maps, reports, videos, photos, etc.). A hundred experts and institutions have already joined the platforms.

How would you sum up the UNESCO action towards Syrian cultural heritage in the present crisis? What are the priorities?

UNESCO  has  started  to  settle  actions  for  the protection  of  the  Syrian  cultural  heritage  since the  beginning  of  the  conflict  (March  2011).  The organisation pursued actions linked to the World Heritage  sites  in  Syria,  particularly  in  Damascus and  Aleppo.  Also,  the  General  Director  made several calls to the public, the professionals and the international community to protect this heritage. On the 28th of August 2013, UNESCO convened Syrian  and  international  experts  to  reflect  on an action plan. This reflection led to the project financed by the European Union with a 3.500.000 dollar fund to protect the Syrian cultural heritage (built, movable and intangible).

Launched on the 1st of March 2014, this project is the first to gather several UNESCO Conventions*. Its implementation will start in August 2014 from the UNESCO Office in Beirut, for three years. This  project  considers  the  Syrian  heritage  as  a whole: built, movable and intangible heritage. Its official partners are the international organisations ICOMOS and ICCROM.

* The  1954  Convention  for  the  Protection of  Cultural Property  in  the  Event  of  Armed  Conflict, the 1970 Convention to prevent illicit trafficking of cultural goods, the 1972 Convention on the protection of World Heritage, and the 2003 Convention to safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage.

What is your feeling after the 26-27th of May meeting on the gathering of the international community? Was it constructive? How will the international community work with heritage actors from civil society after the end of the conflict?

The meeting gathered about forty heritage professionals acting to protect  Syrian  heritage in the country and in the entire world (scholars, researchers, archaeologists, professionals from international institutions, from the Syrian civil society, NGOs and other...). The meeting gave recommendations concerning the different types of heritage: built, movable and intangible. However, there was a consensus on the need to conduct researches in order to fill the gaps in the existing inventories on all types of heritage, while identifying the main places of documentary resources on the period preceding the conflict.
This information will be crucial to restore the buit heritage and rebuild properly those monuments. On the long term, when the conflict ends, missions to assess the damages will have to be organised; these assessments will be conducted in collaboration with the government, members of the opposition and with actors from the civil society. Concerning the movable heritage, recommendations suggested to improve the professional training in terms of assessment of cultural goods. Also, experts have underlined the importance of fighting against the illicit traffic in the bordering countries (Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq), while strengthening the cooperation with national customs and police. Finally, the meeting allowed to deeply reflect on the complexity of intangible heritage protection, which Convention is the most recent (2003), and thus insisted on the need to define which services, among Syrian institutions, could act for this protection.

On the whole, the 26-27th meeting tackled transversal and essential issues of the project regarding awareness raising actions and information sharing between various institutions like INTERPOL, ICOM, ICOMOS which also launched projects to protect the Syrian heritage, inparallel to this one. In the end, the meeting is a good start for the EU project because about thirty Syrians working on the territory but also Syrians from abroad (the United States and Spain) were among the participants. The discussion was thus constructive and remained on the technical level. It is a discussion UNESCO wishes to continue.

More specifically, how will the cooperation between various international organisations for the heritage protection in Syrian be implemented?

All the actions of the project will receive various collaborations from different organisations (intergovernmental organisations and NGOs). In a few days, UNESCO will contact all the people invited to the meeting to inform them about the online opening of the Observatory for the Safeguarding of Syria’s Cultural Heritage which is at the heart of the project managed by UNESCO. We will ask all the experts to provide us with their knowledge to complement the database in order to share information. UNESCO and all the organisations willing to participate to this project will be able to feed this tool. It will be a virtual placededicated to Syrian heritage’s situation. Moreover, this autumn, training workshops  will be organised every month. The first one will be dedicated to the border countries’ customs officers, police and heritage professionals training (in cooperation with INTERPOL, the World Customs Organisation and the Lebanese government).

What will be the relations between local organisations and international actors like UNESCO?

We will first have to identify national organisations, NGOs, members of civil society in Lebanon or in Syria who work for the protection of Syrian cultural heritage, or even United Nations organisations that work in favor of Syria in other fields. We will thus try to cooperate and unify our efforts for a future intervention in Syria. For now, the security doesn’t allow us to develop actions on the Syrian territory; however, future actions will depend on the evolution of the conflict in the months to come. Meanwhile, the project goes on with concrete actions organised in Lebanon.

Are there similar experiences in heritage protection (in conflict situations) that can be applied to the Syrian case? Are there experiences of reconstruction (involving civil society) in post-conflict situations that can be used as examples?

UNESCO has already worked with other countries that were in conflict or post-conflict situations. Actions were led in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and more recently in Libya. We will use all the interesting past experiences and practices to learn and draw work methods and rigor from them.

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UNESCO and other organisations lead educative actions towards young Syrian refugees (the Alliance Française implements actions in Lebanon). Among these actions, do you develop an awareness on cultural heritage component?

In the project, it is planned to follow some examples already used like the «Passport for heritage» used  in  Mali  which  allowed  the  community  to «reappropriate» its heritage. It is an example we will follow in terms of awareness. We will also develop the documentaries Patrimonito on the World Heritage and targeting young people, for  schools.  These documentaries  present  the heritage and its importance in relation to local identity.

Then, we will elaborate actions in cooperation with other institutions (for example, an organisation called Geneva Call working in countries during conflicts). These actions will mainly be dedicated to the people awareness in Syria, and to refugees. There will be information campaigns using communication tools such as the documentaries.It is an example, but there will be other actions we will develop with other organisations. By the way, we are very interested in the work of Patrimoine sans frontières in the awareness field. There are plans already established, and a lot of flexibility that will include other ideas.

Do you see the vote of a resolution at the UN Security Council as a good solution to protect heritage in future conflicts?

This issue doesn’t concern the EU project. It is up to UNESCO to follow the process in order to bring the resolution before the UN Security Council. It is a slow process that requires a lot of steps. It is an action that comes in addition to other more practical actions that will be led in the framework of the EU project. It is not an immediate solution but a parallel path that is important to follow.

According to you, what are the main limits of an intergovernmental organisation like UNESCO in a situation like the Syrian conflict?

Through the meeting, we saw that if we succeed in maintaining the discussions at a technical level, there is no limit anymore.  And  this  is the tone that we have to keep. It hasn’t been simple, there were a lot of negotiations before the meeting, a lot of exchanges, individual encounters, mediation to explain the aim of this meeting to the different parties. Indeed, our goal is to protect the Syrian heritage, whichever side of the conflict our interlocutors defend. The fact that UNESCO, as an intergovernmental organisation, has to exchange with the Syrian government at first, as an official representative, doesn’t   imply   that   the   organisation   cannot exchange with members of the opposition that work for the protection of the Syrian heritage. Indeed, we have asserted that it was important for us to meet everyone.

All the heritage actors linked to Syria were invited to the 26-27th  May  meeting.  Both sides, members of the government and of the opposition were invited to the debate; however, some organisations have decided not to attend this event even though UNESCO had put together the conditions of an open dialogue. We will send them the meeting report and they will be contacted to participate to the platform in order to exchange information with all the experts. This meeting report will be published on the website of the Observatory in three languages (English, French and Arabic).

Interview made on July 3rd, 2014  at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, with the partnership of Heritage for peace.