Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scathing critique of UNESCO's ineffectual response to Syrian crisis

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' Archaeological Excavations department, points out the ways in which UNESCO has failed to go beyond the traditional list of UNESCO measures to do more than what it traditionally does (i.e., training customs officials, putting monuments that are already damaged on the "threatened" list) -- and does, Maqdissi notes, too little too late. The article is interesting throughout, but for me the following points stood out:

-- Qatna-Mishirfeh, a famous site, has not been looted. Maqdissi says this is because it is too famous and people would know, but he also notes that "in contrast to other sites, Qatna-Mishirfeh is still being guarded."

--the majority of looters are professionals working in gangs that learned their trade in Iraq. 

-- it does not make economic sense for armed groups to go into the antiquities trade, since it is not a quick business and rebels need money fast. (This is true, but if the gangs are being taxed, as reports have suggested, then rebels can milk the trade, assuming the gangs are adequately capitalized to be able to retain inventory as we know they have done with the massive amounts looted in Iraq from 2004-2006.)

-- UNESCO has been training the staff of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums but not the activist groups engaged directly in trying to protect sites and museums.

-- Nor is UNESCO thinking about ways to get Syria's site guards paid:
Traditionally, the guards are paid by the Syrian government and by foreign archaeological missions, which usually brought the money into the country themselves. 
For more than three years now, foreigners have stayed away. I have tried to help by picking up the money personally at foreign institutions and sending it from Lebanon to trustworthy Syrians, who gave it to the Directorate of Antiquities so that the guards' wages can be paid for another year. But that only helped a small number of the guards. According to my estimates, 30 to 40 per cent of them no longer receive any money. The sites of the ancient trading city of Mari-Tell Hariri, for example, are currently being guarded by overburdened villagers.
It would be interesting to take a look at UNESCO's budget to see how much has been spent on its international meetings and on conservation training, and to ask how many sites would have been saved from looters had the funds instead gone to pay site guards' salaries. But that's an academic question, since as Maqdissi says, UNESCO's bureaucracy is very entrenched -- including, notably, the experts whose expertise is not in guarding but in conserving -- , making it almost impossible to redirect resources.
And one can see why paying for site guards might open a can of worms for UNESCO. The World Heritage Fund's annual assistance budget for the entire world is only $4 million, and while Syria's situation is perhaps the most desperate, there are many, many countries lacking the money to pay for enough site guards. 
So where is the money to come from? One answer, laid out by Mounir Bouchenaki in his contribution to Antiquities Under Siege, might be actually funding the Intergovernmental Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in Times of Conflict, established but (to my knowledge) never actually contributed to by any state party. 
Don't hold your breath on that happening any time soon. It would take leadership from the US, which sends John Kerry to talk loftily at the Metropolitan Museum about the need to do something to stop the looting of sites in Syria but whose policy moves have been limited to helping document the damage. 
There are, to be sure, other funding sources in the world aside from governments and foreign archaeological missions. One could imagine, for instance, the antiquities dealers associations, museum directors' associations, and a phalanx of ultra-wealthy enlightened collectors, all led perhaps by James Cuno, coming together to set up their own fund. Or, better still, lobbying the governments of major collecting nations to set up funds and generate the revenues to go into those funds via a tax on antiquities sales. 
Wouldn't that be great?

1 comment:

Larry C said...

Great analysis Larry. UNESCO has done way too little, and certainly that budget could be better deployed than the repeated conferences and speeches which seems to be the extent of their involvement Some of the suggestions are problematic, but certainly need to be explored