UNESCO Chief Warns of 'Cultural Cleansing' in War Zones

July 03,2015

LONDON— The head of the United Nations cultural organization says the loss of ancient artifacts destroyed by militants in Iraq and Syria has long-term implications for security and peace in the region.

Militants from the Islamic State group proudly distributed a video of its fighters destroying ancient artifacts at the museum in Mosul, Iraq, in February. The group considers the statues and sculptures blasphemous because they are not in keeping with Islamic tradition.

The resulting outcry by archeologists and other experts received some criticism from people who said the loss of plaster and stone cannot compare to the tens of thousands of deaths and injuries in the conflict.

Major significance

But at London’s Chatham House, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bukova said the concern is about much more than stones and artwork.

“Safeguarding cultural heritage is a security imperative and a peace-building measure,” she said.

Bukova said destroying evidence of their culture makes it more difficult for people caught in conflicts to recover, leaving them more vulnerable in the future.

“All of this, I believe, is part of the same strategy, which I call ‘cultural cleansing.’ Cultural cleansing is a violation of human rights for thousands, if not millions, of women and men, for the communities," she said. "But it also undermines the possibility for future dialogue, peace-building and reconciliation.”

Enforcing law, justice

Any peace-building or reconciliation seems extremely distant in the war zones of Iraq and Syria. And UNESCO says many of the cultural relics that are not being destroyed are being sold illegally to finance other militant operations.

Bukova said the organization is working to fight the trade in illicit artifacts and bring the perpetrators to justice.

It’s a complex and difficult effort, however, and in the meantime, militants are continuing to destroy any trace of cultures that is different from their own.