Saturday, June 22, 2013

UNESCO on Syria: A Year Late and Millions of Dollars Short

UNESCO has placed six Syrian sites to the endangered World heritage list. Better a year late than never I guess, but what is really sad is how little this is likely to mean anyway. The decision is "meant to rally support for the safeguarding of the sites". How much rallying will ensue is highly questionable, especially absent any specification as to how such safeguarding might be achieved. A French proposal calling for a special fund to protect Syria's World Heritage property was approved, but there is no indication in this article at least that contributions would be anything other than voluntary, and similar funds set up after the Iraq Museum was pillaged received almost nothing.

What this shows is just how weak an instrument the World Heritage List is for doing what it claims it does: protect world heritage sites. Had it been better conceived, or if it were to be amended to recognize the need to safeguard sites from looting and shelling, not just from encroachment or degradation from too many tourists, it would have included at least two additional provisions:
a) a requirement that in order to be considered for accession to the list, countries would have to present disaster response plans that included the prospect of civil breakdown as one threat --plans that would involve mobilizing citizens from all walks of life and political persuasions to step in if/when the police disappear;
b) a requirement that all State Parties to the Convention contribute annually to the UNESCO fund a percentage of the tax revenues generated by tourist visits to their sites.

Until the economic power of heritage -- whether embodied by tourist dollars or by the astronomical sums paid by collectors for antiquities -- is harnessed and used to prevent looting and destruction, there will be no real help for Syria or anywhere else where barbarism reigns.

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