Monday, December 19, 2011

"We had no idea it was a library"

The CNN story on the burning of the library in Egypt contains a telling vignette:

At least one demonstrator was unaware that the structure was a library containing historical documents.
"We had no idea it was a library. We love our country. Why were the military thugs on the rooftop of the building in the first place, throwing debris and rocks at us? They destroyed it, not us, and now they will use it to turn public opinion against us and label us thugs," said Ahmed Ali, a student and activist involved in the clashes.

"Since when are buildings or manuscripts more important than the lives of humans?" he added.

The demonstrator's comments hold several lessons one hopes will be learned by heritage protection advocates:

1. There is no guarantee that protestors, patriotic as they are, will know that the buildings they are fighting over are cultural institutions. Organizations that want to avert the disaster that befell the library need to make sure that their buildings are prominently labelled, and heritage protection advocacy groups should be handing out leaflets marking buildings as offlimits.

2. The 1954 Hague Convention requires the marking of cultural buildings in war zones with Blue Shields, but that provision would probably not apply to the kind of conflict occurring in Cairo or elsewhere between citizens and government forces rather than between militaries. The law of war has not caught up with the realities of war today, which involves irregular conflicts much more often than traditional war did. The International Committee of the Blue Shield, which might have taken proactive measures as suggested in #1 above, is hamstrung by its need to operate on a government to government basis, so it either needs to persuade the UN to broaden its mandate or other international and non-governmental organizations need to step in to make sure combatants are informed about the risks they are taking with cultural heritage when they confront each other near or on the grounds of cultural institutions.

3. The Egyptian military should be held accountable for a war crime if its soldiers attacked the demonstrators from the roof of the building, assuming that the 1954 Hague Convention applies. But if the soldiers were attacked first, the Convention (at least so far as I, a non-lawyer, understand it) would be moot. And if the soldiers were trying to drive the protestors away from the building to keep it from burning, they would be acting heroically not illegally.

4. Buildings or manuscripts are not more important than human beings, which is why the 1954 Hague Convention recognizes that military necessity can allow buildings to be destroyed if there is no way to avoid doing so in the midst of a fight. But this is all the more reason why, since both sides in this conflict recognize that manuscripts are important, steps should have been taken by both sides in advance to ensure that there was no need to choose between protecting lives and protecting culture.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

After Iraq National Archives, after Baghdad Museum, after Cairo Museum, Why Was Egypt's Library Not Secured?

The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in the midst of the chaos in Cairo is a cultural disaster on a par with the worst acts of destruction of heritage in recent years, arguably worse than the losses to the Iraq Museum (since stolen artifacts can still be recovered, whereas the burned original manuscripts are gone forever). Whether the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or, as some have asserted, was set by the soldiers inside the building, is not yet clear, and may never become clear. What is clear, however, is that the burning of this library reflects yet another abject failure of heritage policy to protect heritage when it is most at risk.

It is not as if this eventuality was unpredictable. After the Cairo Museum was robbed in the midst of similar chaos last January, the Egyptian government, and the military leaders who run the country, should have been able to work with international heritage protection agencies and organizations such as UNESCO, the Blue Shield,and others -- including the many, many Egyptian citizens who care deeply about their heritage (and showed it by joining hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum in January) -- to put in place contingency plans to keep cultural institutions secure during periods of unrest. Last but not least, the US government, which subsidizes Egypt's military to the tune of billions, ought to have demanded the Egyptians secure their cultural institutions and sites as a condition of aid. But of course, since we have no carabinieri-like forces ourselves to do this sort of thing, and little interest ourselves in securing cultural sites apart from major tourist attractions such as the Baghdad Museum or Babylon, chances are that no one from the Pentagon was even thinking about the problem, even after the looting of the Cairo Museum.

That was in January. Did the fate of the Cairo Museum provide a wakeup call that site security needed to be an urgent policy priority? It was not until mid-October, after months of bureaucratic chaos, that the government announced it had set up a committee to develop security plans, so the answer is most likely no. Nor did any citizens' groups evolve out of the noble ad hoc handholding at the museum.

The result? If this CNN report is accurate, the military did not set up a perimeter around the building. Instead, a small number of soldiers stood on the building's roof and goaded the protestors:

The library was a scene of intense confrontation Saturday.

A dozen men dressed in military uniform were positioned on the library roof and threw cement blocks and rocks on the protesters and sprayed them with water hoses to push them away from the building.

But protesters hurled back rocks as well as Molotov cocktails. Then a massive explosion erupted, apparently originating from inside the building, and black smoke billowed.

Firefighters were busy putting out another fire in a nearby building.

Protesters were bleeding from rocks thrown at them.

What is to be done going forward, beyond the important immediate task of salvaging the remnants of the library?

First, the courage, energy, and passion that Egyptian citizens have shown in responding to the disasters at the museum and now at the library needs to be channeled into civic organizations that can be mobilized proactively next time around.

Second, UNESCO needs to either shift resources from conservation and development or supplement them with additional funding focused on securing cultural sites during periods of political unrest.

Third, the United States needs to exercise some leadership and influence, where it has leverage or ties with militaries in countries undergoing transitions or crises, to induce them to do the right thing.

Fourth, NGOs and foundations that support cultural heritage conservation need to begin thinking about how they can work directly with nascent heritage site protection NGOs in-country.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Profile of State Department's Archaeologist in Afghanistan

Excellent profile of Laura Tedesco, who as the State Department's archaeologist in Afghanistan is doing even more dangerous duty than her colleagues in Iraq, the only other country, as the article notes, where the State Department has posted an archaeologist. It takes great courage and commitment to put one's body on the line as archaeologists in both countries have done, and they deserve our gratitude for that.

As a matter of policy, it is interesting to compare the approach taken in the two countries. In Iraq, the focus has been on redeveloping Babylon and restoring the Iraq Museum as heritage tourism destinations, with little attention paid to the massive destruction of other sites by looting or encroachment. In Afghanistan, in contrast, the focus has been on one extraordinary recently deiscovered archaeological site, at Mes Aynak, that is certain to be destroyed, even though it could in theory have become a major tourist attraction if it did not sit atop mineable natural resources worth far more than tourism could ever generate. Tedesco is coy about how much is being spent on salvaging what can be saved from Mes Aynak, but admits it runs into the millions. It is worth asking how much might have been saved from being destroyed by antiquities looters in Iraq if the policymakers at the State Department and in the Pentagon had recognized that there was an equivalent need to protect Iraq's threatened archaeological heritage, and not just to exploit the part of it that would generate tourist revenues.