Wednesday, July 17, 2013

UNESCO's response to the Syrian crisis: more handwringing where new ideas are needed

In response to the latest footage showing, again, shelling of World Heritage sites in Syria, the head of UNESCO has issued yet another in a series of futile calls for an end to such destruction. What is most depressing is not just that these appeals are almost certain to fall on deaf ears, but that Ms. Bokova is missing the opportunity to call for changes that need to be made in the international instruments she cites -- changes that are desperately needed if there is to be any hope of reducing site destruction going forward -- whether such destruction is due to military action, as in the case of Syria, or to the actions of antiquities looters who operate with impunity in these conditions.

Take the 1954 Hague Convention, which was designed to discourage States Parties from firing at sites or pillaging them. As the article notes, "In an earlier statement, Ms. Bokova had said that 'destroying the inheritance of the past, which is the legacy for future generations, serves no purpose except that of deepening hatred and despair and it further weakens the foundations for cohesion of Syrian society.'" It is true that one effect of of destroying World Heritage sites is to deepen social divides, and in the case of the Taliban that was certainly the purpose. But as a matter of fact, the Hague Convention itself recognizes that there might well be a good reason for shelling a World Heritage site -- if the enemy has moved onto the site, the Convention says, anything goes. Whoever moves onto a site first is culpable in that case.

For the Hague Convention to do any good in the Syrian context, then, Ms Bokova would need to go beyond vague appeals to warring parties to cool it, and instead urge that the international community to do what it would take to hold accountable whoever moves their forces first onto a site. Why does she not call strenuously for an international monitoring system capable of putting eyes in the skies over World Heritage sites in conflict zones, so that those who move first onto the sites can be identified and then indicted and prosecuted?

The other international instrument cited by Ms. Bokova, the World Heritage Convention, is similarly hamstrung when it comes to dealing with Syria-style threats. The Convention itself has always been overblown about the protection it provides to the sites listed -- looting may have been one of the threats mentioned but from the beginning the more important threat was defined as that caused by development or by neglect. And the aim of the list was to incentivize governmental investment in conservation and planned tourist development.

What happens, then, when war breaks out? Tourism is non-existent. That makes the threat of de-listing -- the only stick that the Convention provides -- relatively unimportant, in the short run, which is the only run that matters when a state is at war.

Is there any change that could be made to the Convention's listing procedures to give it some relevance in situations like Syria? Yes. For starters, to get or stay on the list, UNESCO could require countries to submit a disaster preparedness plan for approval. A more robust change would require countries to contribute a percentage of tourist-generated tax revenues to an international disaster-response fund, a kind of insurance policy.

These are, admittedly, not necessarily easy changes to effectuate. But that is all the more reason for the head of UNESCO to be forcefully advocating for them, or for some other innovations. The problem is too dire to settle for the usual "I am shocked" pronouncements.

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