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Honour the ‘Monuments Men & Women’ of today – UN expert on cultural rights

GENEVA (8 March 2016) – “We need to do more to recognize those brave men and women who risk their lives to protect the cultural heritage of humanity”, said the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune: “Cultural heritage is a human rights issue and deliberate destruction of this common heritage is a human rights violation.”
While the world mourned the Syrian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who died defending Palmyra in August 2015, many of his fellow culture heritage defenders continue to labour in obscurity and danger. Sometimes ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to safeguard cultural artifacts like those in Northern Mali who reportedly hid manuscripts beneath the floorboards of their homes to protect them during the 2012 occupation or those who protested the destruction of Sufi sites in Libya.

“The ‘monuments men and women’ of today – archaeologists, museum curators, archivists or guards around the world - have been willing to risk their lives to defend the history of humanity. We owe it to them to continue their work, remember their names, support their families and colleagues and protect what they have saved,” Ms. Bennoune said in advance of presenting her first report* to the UN Human Rights Council Thursday, focusing on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage.

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” said the Special Rapporteur, invoking the motto of the National Museum of Afghanistan, where 2,750 pieces were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, even as Afghan curators tried to defend the collection. Intentional destruction of heritage, Ms. Bennoune said “is often part of a strategy to destroy the morale of people, terrorize them, or eradicate signs of the presence of certain cultures in a territory.”

As the Special Rapporteur outlines in her report, because destruction of cultural heritage often results from armed conflict, whether as so-called collateral damage or due to deliberate targeting, a special regime governs its protection in times of conflict, in particular through the 1954 Hague Convention and the two protocols thereto.

“I have heard worrying reports of violations of these provisions in recent and on-going conflicts which I will consider in my next report to the UN General Assembly,” the Special Rapporteur noted, expressing concern that many State members of the Human Rights Council have themselves not adhered to the standards.

“In addition to tackling the role of States, attention must also be paid to the robust use of international standards for holding non-State actors to account and preventing their engaging in destruction,” she added.

Ms. Bennoune stressed that recent destructions that have been reported in mass media, and which deeply affected the local populations, are just a few examples and that similar pattern of attacks by States and non-State actors are occurring in a number of regions of the world. She also recalled that accountability through individual criminal responsibility is crucial to protecting heritage. “I very much hope that we will see further cases like the one currently proceeding in the ICC with regard to the destruction in Timbuktu,” she said.

“Destruction is often accompanied by other grave assaults on human dignity and human rights,” the expert explained. “As such, it must be addressed in the context of holistic strategies for the promotion of human rights and peace-building.”

The Special Rapporteur also recommends that States prepare in peacetime for threats to cultural heritage, allocating sufficient resources, conducting educational programmes, providing international technical assistance and making use of new technologies and media.
“The international community has largely failed to address the destruction of cultural heritage as a question of human rights.  If we are to successfully defend such heritage from recent onslaughts, this must change,” the expert stated. “We must react with urgency, but take the long view.”

(*) Check the full report by the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/31/59): http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session31/Pages/ListReports.aspx

Ms. Karima Bennoune (United States of America) was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. She grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Ms. Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/SRCulturalRightsIndex.aspx 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

For more information and media requests please contact Mylène Bidault (+41 22 917 9254 / mbidault@ohchr.org), Johanne Bouchard (+41 22 917 9605 / jbouchard@ohchr.org) or write to srculturalrights@ohchr.org

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