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Statement by Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, at the 71st session of the General Assembly

New York, 26 October

Honourable Chair, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies, and gentlemen,

I am honoured to take the floor before the General Assembly for the first time in my capacity as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. By way of personal introduction, I would like to invoke the name of my grandfather on the Algerian side of my family, Lakhdar Bennoune, a peasant leader who died as did so many defeating colonialism.  This family history explains why I became a human rights lawyer, because I was raised to believe that such sacrifices to advance the cause of human rights have left us all with responsibilities to carry forward that struggle.

Today I present my first thematic report to the General Assembly which concerns the intentional destruction of cultural heritage as a violation of human rights.  In light of recent events that have shocked the conscience of the world such as the destructions of historic temples at Palmyra or of Mausoleums in Mali, I address the intentional destruction of cultural heritage as an urgent priority. In future, I also hope to explore further other forms of destruction of cultural heritage, such as that carried out in the name of development.

Cultural heritage is significant in the present, both as a message from the past and as a pathway to the future. Viewed from a human rights perspective, it is important not only in itself, but also in relation to its human dimension. While specific aspects of heritage may have particular resonance for and connections to particular human groups, all of humanity has a link to such objects, which represent the “cultural heritage of all humankind,” in all its diversity. Cultural heritage includes tangible heritage, composed of sites, structures and remains of archaeological, historical, religious, or cultural value, and also intangible heritage made up of traditions, customs, aesthetic and spiritual beliefs, languages, artistic expressions and folklore.  Tangible and intangible heritage are closely interlinked and attacks on one are usually accompanied by assaults on the other.

The right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage forms part of international human rights law, finding its legal basis, inter alia in the right to take part in cultural life.  Cultural heritage is a fundamental resource for other human rights also, in particular, the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the economic rights of the many people who earn a living through tourism related to such heritage, and the right to development.

In its General Comment No. 21, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recalled that article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights includes the obligation to respect and protect cultural heritage.  Numerous other international instruments including many developed through UNESCO also protect cultural heritage. I welcome the fact that, in its recent Resolution 33/20 (2016) on “cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage,” the Human Rights Council agreed that “the destruction of or damage to cultural heritage may have a detrimental and irreversible impact on the enjoyment of cultural rights.”  The Council also encouraged States to consider implementing the recommendations that I made both to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly on these issues, including in the report before you today.

A special protection regime governs heritage protection in times of conflict. The core standards include the 1954 Hague Convention and the protocols thereto. The Hague Convention, requires States parties to respect cultural property and to refrain from any act of hostility directed against it or any use of it likely to expose it to such acts, subject only to imperative military necessity (art. 4).  The Second Protocol strengthens the rule by further limiting the military necessity exception.

I have heard worrying reports of violations of these provisions in recent conflicts. I call on states to recognize that any military necessity exception to the ban on targeting cultural property must be interpreted narrowly, taking into consideration the impact on cultural rights.  All military decisions resulting in the destruction of or damage to cultural heritage should be subject to close scrutiny.

I note with concern that many States have not adhered to the 1954 Hague Convention and its Protocols, in particular the Second Protocol, which now has 69 parties, since the most recent accession by Norway. I was pleased to learn of the commitment that has been made for the first time by a permanent member of the Security Council, namely, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ratify the Second Protocol (and implement it through the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill), and I look forward to the achievement of that important step. I call upon all permanent members of the Security Council to follow suit in the next two years so as to demonstrate collective leadership on this critical issue which is at the heart of meaningful peace and security.

In addition to tackling the role of States, attention must also be paid to the robust use of international standards such as article 19 of The Hague Convention – and developing other strategies – for holding non-State actors to account and preventing their engaging in destruction.
Individual criminal responsibility arises from serious offences against cultural heritage, which can rise to the level of war crimes or to crimes against humanity when carried out with discriminatory intent, and may also be evidence of intent to destroy a group within the meaning of the genocide convention. A human rights approach emphasizes accountability.  I welcomed the decision of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to charge the destruction of cultural and religious sites as a stand-alone war crime for the first time in the case of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi which has recently resulted in a guilty verdict and 9 year sentence.  I endorse the conclusions in the Al Mahdi judgment that the crime in question aimed at “breaking the soul of the people of Timbuktu” and was of “significant gravity.”  I very much hope to see similar prosecutions in future, and to that end I remind States of the vital need to collect and preserve evidence of any such crimes.

In the report, I give examples of recent acts of destruction which deeply affected the local populations. These are just a few examples and reports are forthcoming from many regions of the world of a similar pattern of attacks by States and non-State actors. Unfortunately, there is a long human history of such acts in all regions of the world, whether in wars, revolutions or waves of repression. However, in the early twenty-first century, a new wave of deliberate destruction is being recorded and displayed for the world to see, the impact magnified by widespread distribution of the images. Such acts are often openly proclaimed and justified by their perpetrators and represent a form of cultural warfare being used against populations which I condemn in the strongest possible terms.  Such attacks represent an urgent challenge to cultural rights that requires rapid and thoughtful international response, including by the UN human rights system.

Acts of deliberate destruction are often accompanied by other grave assaults on human dignity and human rights, including acts of terrorism. They have to be addressed in the context of holistic strategies for the promotion of human rights, and peacebuilding.  Protection of cultural heritage must be included in the mandates of peacekeeping missions.  We must care about the destruction of heritage in conjunction with our grave concern for the destruction of the lives of populations. 

Acts of intentional destruction harm all, target freethinkers in majority groups and often disproportionately affect persons belonging to minorities. They contribute to intolerance and tensions between people, and deprive all humanity of the rich diversity of cultural heritage. Sites that are testimonies to the friendship and interactions between various groups are also particularly targeted.

There are many examples where destruction is part of the “cultural engineering” practiced by diverse extremists. To deal with these forms of cultural heritage destruction, the international community must tackle, in accordance with international human rights standards, extremist and fundamentalist ideologies, sectarianism and discriminatory attitudes towards, inter alia, those with different views, minorities, indigenous peoples, which often lead to cultural cleansing in the form of cultural heritage destruction.

Some of the grave violations I have just described have received deserved international attention in recent years. However, I also note many ongoing acts of destruction of cultural heritage in many regions which often go unnoticed by the international community, targeting in particular indigenous peoples.  So, we must not only respond to the Palmyra moment as it were, but use this moment to shine the light on other patterns of past or current heritage destruction, which also constitute human rights violations.  For example, in the report, I recall the grievous history of destruction of diverse forms of indigenous cultural heritage in many parts of the world as a systematic part of, inter alia, colonialism or nationalist policies in post-colonial States, and I note that the totality of these acts have had long-lasting effects on the human rights of many indigenous peoples in diverse geographical contexts.

In responding to intentional destruction of cultural heritage today, it is critical to employ a human rights approach. Beyond preserving and safeguarding an object or a manifestation in itself, a human rights approach obliges one to take into account the rights of individuals and populations in relation to them.  It is impossible to separate a people’s cultural heritage from the people itself and their rights.

This is certainly the way it is often experienced by local populations. Haider Oraibi, the Director of the National Museum of Iraq, was reported to have wept after learning of Daesh destruction of Iraq’s relics, remarking, “They're just statues, [b]ut for us, they're living things. We came from them, we are part of them. That is our culture and our belief.” When extremists attacked Mosul’s museum, he was quoted as saying, “it was like someone wanted to kill you, like a murder.” One can hear in these words how much pain and suffering is caused by such destructions and how in fact they represent an assault on human dignity and human rights.

A critical, related question concerns the protection of the defenders of cultural heritage who are at risk, such as those who have curated and protected the National Museum of Afghanistan through decades of war and worked tirelessly to reconstruct the damaged pieces that could be saved after some 2,750 pieces were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The former director of that museum will be speaking at my side event tomorrow on intentional destruction along with experts from Iraq, experts on Native American heritage and others in Conference Room 12 from 5:30-8 PM. I hope that many of you will join us.

Some cultural heritage defenders can only be with us in spirit because they have laid down their lives in defence of cultural heritage, such as Aida Buturovic, a librarian killed in 1992 on her way home from working to save rare books at the National and University Library of Sarajevo on the day it was shelled, or those who have fallen in recent years such as Anas Radwan, a young Syrian architect killed in 2013 reportedly by a barrel bomb while documenting damage to heritage in the old city of Aleppo or Samira Saleh al-Naimi, an Iraqi lawyer abducted and killed in September 2014 after denouncing destructions of religious and cultural sites by Daesh in her home city of Mosul, or Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist who died defending Palmyra in August 2015 or Berta Cáceres, noted campaigner for indigenous rights and indigenous heritage, including natural heritage, gunned down in Honduras in March 2016, and many others who today continue to labour in obscurity and danger. I pay tribute to all of them. We must not wait until we are mourning the deaths of at-risk cultural heritage defenders to rally to their cause. Such figures may also include ordinary people like those in Northern Mali who reportedly hid manuscripts beneath the floorboards of their homes to protect them during the 2012 occupation, or women I observed in North Africa sleeping in shifts inside a mausoleum to protect it after it had been attacked.

People like them are the guardians of cultural heritage and cultural rights defenders. They often put their safety on the line to carry out this work. States must respect their rights and ensure their safety and security, but also provide them, including through international cooperation, with the conditions necessary to complete their work, including all needed material and technical assistance, grant them asylum when necessary and ensure that when displaced they are able to continue their work and training and to take part in the protection and reconstruction of their country’s cultural heritage.

I also encourage the development and adoption of a fully gender-sensitive approach to the protection of cultural heritage and to the combating of its destruction, which should include: recognizing the work of women cultural heritage defenders, who may in addition face gender discrimination; promoting the inclusion of women cultural heritage experts in relevant forums and institutions; and combating the particular challenges faced by women in accessing cultural heritage without discrimination and even in ensuring that their heritage is recognized in the first place.

A human rights approach also embraces prevention and the allocation of sufficient budgetary resources both at the national and international levels. Preventive action and education, especially for young people, on the importance of cultural heritage and cultural rights for all without discrimination are vital. 

Before I conclude, let me take this opportunity to reiterate the appeal by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova for all involved in the current military action – including in an advisory capacity - in and around the city of Mosul, to protect its rich cultural heritage, the very heritage which Iraqis risked their lives to defend in recent years.  As the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted last Friday, protection of civilians is paramount in this context. Cultural heritage protection is also integral to this, and must be included in any sustainable and effective strategies for peace.

Let me conclude by stressing again how crucial it is to consider that destruction of cultural heritage is a human rights issue, including in times of conflict, when human rights law must be taken seriously as a necessary complement to international humanitarian law. When cultural heritage is destroyed, this bears important consequences for a wide range of human rights for current generations and those to come.  Cultural heritage is a record of the genius of human beings, that which we leave behind for the next generations to mark our path through this world, and quite simply irreplaceable even in a digital world. Let us come together with urgency and thoughtfulness to protect it. To that end, I made many recommendations in the report to which I hope governments will give close consideration. 

In a poem entitled “The smothered murmurs of history”, poet Saleh Beddiari, himself a refugee from extremist violence in the 1990s, expressed the anguish many have felt after recent acts of cultural demolition.  He gave voice to the fear that, if unchecked, there will be more destruction to come writing that “The people of the new millennium are determined to reduce their ruins to the dust of ruins…” It is up to us all to work together to make sure that what this poet feared, what so many others fear, does not come to pass – anywhere.

Thank you.