UNESCO Director General visits the UK to promote awareness of destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East

Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General at Chatham House

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited London on 1 and 2 July to bring the attention of the international community and its policymakers to the emergence of a new wave of cultural cleansing throughout the Middle East.

The key event of this visit was a talk at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, titled “Cultural Heritage: Extremism’s New Target”.

In this Ms Bokova discussed the recent take over and endangerment of UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the ancient Semitic city Palmyra, stating that UNESCO has a four layered role in these circumstances:

“First, to mitigate risks of destruction and pillaging, through monitoring and capacity-building, second, to fight illicit trafficking, working with neighbouring countries, and international partners, third, to document what has been destroyed and prepare for reconstruction, and fourth, to counter the propaganda of hatred and discord, through new forms of communication.”

The lecture ended with emphasis on UNESCO’s role as a peacebuilding organisation, with a duty to protect global cultural heritage for future generations. Victoria & Albert Museum Director Martin Roth, chaired the event.

On the same day, the Director-General took part in an expert roundtable organised by the International Security Department at Chatham House, under the theme “Culture on the Frontline: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones”, where she highlighted the growing urgency to protect culture in warzones. The event was organised in light of UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which imposes explicit norms against illegal trafficking of cultural artefacts from Syria and Iraq. The roundtable was chaired by UKNC Expert Network member Professor Peter Stone OBE, Chair of the UK & Ireland Committee for the Blue Shield – the cultural heritage equivalent of the Red Cross.