New fund to protect endangered cultural heritage

A 2016 snapshot of a photographer holding his picture of the Temple of Bel in Syria taken in 2014 in front of the remains of the site after it was destroyed by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015.
A 2016 snapshot of a photographer holding his picture of the Temple of Bel in Syria taken in 2014 in front of the remains of the site after it was destroyed by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Global conference debates ways to preserve treasured works of art at risk in conflict areas

ABU DHABI • Representatives of around 40 countries were yesterday expected to approve establishing a fund to protect heritage sites in conflict-ravaged areas and a network of safe havens for endangered artworks.

From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan to Iraq, Islamists have targeted priceless cultural heritage sites that they deem un-Islamic.

Representatives of governments and public and private institutions at a conference in Abu Dhabi started debating on Friday ways to preserve heritage and treasured works of art at risk.

The fund aims to safeguard cultural heritage endangered by conflicts, finance preventive and emergency operations, combat the illicit trafficking of artefacts and help restore damaged cultural property, based on a draft declaration that was to be finalised.

Participants hope the global network of refuge zones under discussion will be used to temporarily store cultural property endangered by conflicts or extremism.

  • Background Story

  • Endangered world heritage sites

    Fifty-five out of a total of 1,052 heritage sites around the world feature on the UN cultural organisation's World Heritage in Danger list.

    Here is a rundown of some of them, along with the year when they were included in the list:


    Archaeological remains of Jam (2002) and the Bamiyan Valley (2003).


    Ashur (2003), Hatra (2015) and Samarra Archaeological City (2007).


    Old City and its walls (1982).


    Tomb of Askia (2012), Timbuktu (2012) and Old Towns of Djenne (2016).


    Air and Tenere natural reserves (1992).


    Ancient cities of Aleppo (2013), Bosra (2013) and Damascus (2013); ancient villages of northern Syria (2013); Crac des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din castles (2013); and Palmyra (2013).


    Historic town of Zabid (2000), Old City of Sanaa (2015) and Old Walled City of Shibam (2015).


    Numerous national parks are also listed, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Senegal.

    The Everglades National Park in the US state of Florida was listed in 2010.


But with sovereignty a sensitive issue, such assets would only be moved out of a concerned country after a request by its government, according to a source taking part in the discussions.

Art treasures should first be moved to a safe place within the country itself. Moving them to a neighbouring country would be a second option and sending them elsewhere would be a last resort.

Former French culture minister Jack Lang, who heads the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe, said the heritage protection fund and safe haven network would be included in a declaration at the end of the Unesco-backed conference.

A draft of the Abu Dhabi Declaration did not mention a value for the proposed fund. But delegates have spoken of a US$100 million (S$141 million) target.

Some countries, including Egypt, have expressed reservations about the creation of safe havens, a delegate said.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told participants that this should be a "last option" and there should be "guarantees for the safe return" of cultural property to the country of origin.

Participants at the conference will call on the United Nations Security Council to support the initiative, according to the draft declaration. Unesco will oversee the safeguarding operations.

The meeting coincided with an announcement by the Swiss authorities that they had seized cultural relics looted from Syria, Libya and Yemen that were being stored in Geneva's free ports.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'New fund to protect endangered cultural heritage'. Print Edition | Subscribe