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Special Procedures

UN rights expert calls to stop intentional destruction of cultural heritage

Cultural heritage

26 October 2016

NEW YORK (26 October 2016) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, has today issued an urgent call to step up international action against the destruction of cultural heritage.

The human rights expert told the UN General Assembly there were numerous current examples of the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage having a grave impact on people. She presented a report* setting out the challenges and possible solutions, stressing the need to see cultural destruction as a human rights issue.

“Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria are all in our minds today, but many more countries are to be added to this list, where acts of intentional destruction harm all, target free thinkers and disproportionately affect people belonging to minorities,” Bennoune said. Conflict-related destruction in Yemen was currently causing particular concern, she added.

Ms. Bennoune stressed that the challenge of protecting cultural heritage – precious monuments, sites and sacred places – could not be met without first understanding the need to protect people and their human rights.

“We must understand that when cultural heritage is under attack, it is also the people and their fundamental human rights that are under attack,” she said.

“Destruction is often accompanied by other grave assaults on human dignity and human rights. We must care not only about the destruction of heritage, but also about the destruction of the lives of human beings. They are interrelated.”

The Special Rapporteur highlighted root causes including armed conflict, indiscriminate attacks which failed to distinguish between military targets and civilian infrastructure, deliberate targeting, and acts based on an inappropriately broad definition of military necessity.

“The destruction undermines the right to freedom from discrimination and numerous other human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity; as well as the rights to take part in cultural life and to access and enjoy cultural heritage,” she stressed.

Ms. Bennoune urged solutions based on holistic strategies which promoted human rights and peace-building.  She highlighted cultural cleansing and cultural warfare as elements which clearly demonstrated the need for a human rights-based approach to the issue.

“Adopting a new human rights approach links the connections that people have to cultural heritage and the ways in which it allows them to enjoy their human rights,” she said. “In particular, it means consulting the people who have particular connections with heritage when seeking to determine whether they wish to rebuild or reconstruct such heritage and if so, how and when.”

She strongly recommended that States should tackle - in accordance with international standards - extremist and fundamentalist ideologies, sectarianism and discriminatory attitudes, while maintaining critical strategies such as humanist education, respect for human rights and the promotion of tolerance and pluralism.

The Special Rapporteur also paid particular tribute to all those who had laid down their lives to preserve humanity’s cultural heritage.

“In many cases we must consider cultural heritage professionals on the frontlines of the struggle against destruction as human rights defenders,” Ms. Bennoune said.  “We must ensure their safety and security, provide them with the conditions necessary to complete their work, and grant them asylum when necessary.”

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full report:

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: 

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.

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