Unesco fights back as ISIS tries to stamp out culture

ISIS uses grisly violence to terrorise the West, recruit supporters, and subjugate people in the areas it controls. But it is also waging a quieter war against more abstract enemies: culture and heritage.

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, it began destroying historic sites and artefacts, some thousands of years old. Museums, monuments, cultural sites getting caught in the crossfire of war - that is nothing new. But what ISIS is doing is different, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova told Foreign Policy.

The group sells ancient artefacts to bankroll its war machine and demolishes sites to demoralise its enemies and erase multicultural symbols - moves that support the group's wider plan. It's "quite new, quite unseen, systematic and deliberate", Ms Bokova said. "It goes hand in hand with the destruction of diversity, persecution...of minorities."

A key example was Palmyra, where the group recorded blowing up the ancient city that symbolised Syria's historic multiculturalism, then spread the video footage on the Internet to gin up extremist support and recruit new fighters.

Ms Bokova calls it "cultural cleansing" and what worries her even more is that ISIS found a way to make money from it. ISIS sells ancient antiquities on the black market to raise funds - and it is no small change. Russia estimated last year that the terrorist group made US$150 million (S$210 million) to US$200 million a year off such activities. ISIS even has its own "war spoils" bureaucracy, which manages the sale of everything from hostages to oil to antiquities to line its coffers. "This is something new we have not seen before," Ms Bokova said.


As head of the United Nations' culture and education arm, Ms Bokova is fighting on the front lines of this new kind of warfare. The former Bulgarian foreign affairs minister lobbied hard in her UN seat for international action to clamp down on ISIS' war on heritage. It is a slow, laborious process, but there are hints of progress.

In February 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution explicitly condemning ISIS' profiteering and destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. Ms Bokova hopes the resolution spurs countries to crack down on the antiquities black market and focus on cultural destruction as a war crime.

The US Congress heeded the call. A month after the UN resolution, the House passed a Bill, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, to ban the import of artefacts from Syria and stem the flow of the ISIS antiquities trade.

And last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first conviction exclusively for "cultural destruction" in a landmark case. After surrendering to the ICC in 2015, Al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in prison for destroying ancient cultural sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

Needless to say, cultural sites are not the main victims of the war in Syria and Iraq. When pressed on the reason for protecting cultural sites when so many people are suffering or in danger of losing their lives, Ms Bokova called it a false dichotomy. The two are mutually supportive. "(When) you destroy identities of people, destroy their history, you destroy the reasoning for future reconciliation and peace," she said.

When war refugees live in camps for years, merely shipping them food and tents will not cut it. To bring back a sense of normalcy and repair their lives, culture plays a key role, Ms Bokova said. If Syria ever finds peace, Syrians need a "Syria" to return home to and rebuild - culture, heritage and all.


  • The author is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Unesco fights back as ISIS tries to stamp out culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe