U.N. Security Council adopts first-ever resolution on cultural heritage

The temple Of Baalshamin, seen here in 2010, has reportedly been ruined during the Syrian civil war. The temple is part of the country's extensive ruins at Palmyra. (Adwo/Shutterstock)

As historic cities across the Middle East are pillaged and looted, the United Nations Security Council last week formally condemned such destruction by terrorist groups. The move was the first time the council has adopted a resolution on cultural heritage.

Archaeologists, historians, curators and other heritage professionals have lamented the sacking of museums and deliberate destruction of monuments in recent years, especially in the ancient Syrian cities of Aleppo and Palmyra.

UNESCO, the U. N.’s culture agency, has been urging the United Nations to act in the face of the Syrian civil war and armed conflict that has spread into Iraq. On 24 March the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2347, which singles out groups including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda for financing warfare with illegally trafficked stolen artifacts.

“The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime — it has become a tactic of war to tear societies over the long term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told the council. “This is why defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue. It is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.”

UNESCO called the resolution “historic”. In a statement, the agency noted that the action’s unanimous support by the Security Council “reflects a new recognition of the importance of heritage protection for peace and security”.

The recent wave of destruction comes as the United Nations has formally recognized the need for countries to track progress on urban heritage for the first time. In 2015, the nearly 200 countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a framework that includes a landmark goal on cities. Within that Goal 11, a specific target calls on countries to “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

Jeff Soule, treasurer of the U. S. chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, welcomed the move.

“The Security Council’s strong support for cultural heritage will make it harder for terrorists to raise money looting and selling world treasures,” he said. “Equally important, it shows the tremendous value that historic cities represent as vessels of cultural memory and sense of place. Only attention and collaboration among governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector will protect our shared heritage and this resolution is an important push.”

As conflicts in the Middle East continue apace, museums and nonprofits around the world are attempting to save as much information as possible. For example, Paris’s Louvre Museum recently hosted an exhibit with digital recreations of Palmyra’s treasures.

[See: Sustaining peace in an urban world]

The new resolution also references a recent decision by the International Criminal Court that “for the first time convicted a defendant for the war crimes of intentionally directing attacks against religious buildings and historic monuments and buildings.” That’s a reference to the case of a Malian militant who took part in the violent takeover of Timbuktu in 2012.

The resolution “confirms” that such actions can be considered war crimes.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.