Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallax View: the US Responses to Cultural Heritage Destruction in Syria versus Iraq

The State Department has issued a fact sheet related to Secretary Kerry's announcement of steps the US is taking in response to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Those steps, Kerry said, included funding ASOR's documentation of conditions on sites and "doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage."

The State Department's fact sheet fills in more details about what the support in Iraq has focused on:
In Iraq, the United States government has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 for a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq National Museum, establishment of a cultural heritage preservation training institute in Erbil, and site management planning and conservation work at the site of ancient Babylon. The Department of State also partnered with international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft, and illicit trafficking. Since 1990, the United States has restricted the importation of cultural property of Iraq and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance.
A few things are worth noting about these facts:

There is no mention in the State Department's fact sheet of any of the $33 million spent since 2003 going to monitor and document conditions on archaeological sites, as they are now doing. That's because the State Department and the US military stonewalled repeated demands by archaeologists and heritage protection advocates for satellite imagery that would enable conditions on sites to be monitored and documented.  (For more details on the sad history of America's stewardship of archaeological sites and the museum during and after the 2003 invasion, see Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War and The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.)

Nor is there any mention of any of that $33 million going to pay for site guards or antiquities police. The vast majority of Iraq's archaeological sites were left unguarded for years, while millions were plowed into turning Babylon into an unvisitable tourist site for PR purposes, and millions more on training conservators. The latter is at least of some efficacy and worth funding, but we know that the few sites that have been spared have included those on which armed guards remained (including some in Syria in recent days) because they continued to be paid or had faith that they would eventually be paid by the archaeologists who had hired them as guards.

Secretary of State Kerry's remarks contain no mention of restricting the import of cultural property from Syria, as was done for Iraqi material, and done not just for the importation of material into the US, but via UN Resolution 1483, on a worldwide basis. Why is the US not declaring an emergency ban for Syrian material itself, and why is the US not pushing through a worldwide ban at the UN?

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