Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mali, Syria, and Yemen: Cultural Heritage and International Security

The escalating conflict in Mali continues to threaten the security of cultural heritage sites. In response, Irina Bokova, the General Director of UNESCO, repeated calls for protection such as in April and December of last year. The calls have asserted that protection of cultural heritage holds relevance for international security and is “an essential part of all sustainable efforts to build peace and respect for human rights.” As with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, wanton destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu demonstrates a progressive targeting of cultural property in political violence.
Destruction, however, only represents one type of exploitation. Stories out of Tehran and Sana over the past week illustrate the roles that cultural property can play in regions of political and armed conflict. Specifically, a report accused the French government of opportunistically smuggling mummies from Syria, and a news story reported on looting and trafficking of antiquities in Yemen as a consequence of the conflict between Al-Qaeda and the government.
An article by FARS News Agency cited a report from the Arabi Press news website. The report implicated the French and Turkish governments in collaborating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to loot cultural artifacts from Syria. The report indicated that the FSA is smuggling invaluable mummies of the Tadmor region to Turkey under the guise of protecting the artifacts but that, in reality, the smuggling is part of plot for France to acquire the artifacts.
An article in the Yemen Times reported on poor security in museums throughout the country. A lack of cameras and inadequate tracking of objects through databases create opportunities for theft. The article quotes Mohammed Al-Sanabani, the head of the Antiquities General Authority, and Abdulkarim Al-Barakani, the Deputy Manager of Antiquities and Cultural Properties Protection, on the extent of the black market and trafficking through Sana’s airport as well as by sea and through neighboring nations.
Destruction of religious monuments in the midst of armed conflict with terrorist groups in Mali dramatically demonstrates the interrelation of protection of cultural heritage and international security. While less overt, accusations of smuggling of cultural patrimony has ramifications for the political credibility of France. Perhaps the report meant to cast suspicion on the motives of France in military engagement in Mali. Similarly, the rampant looting in Yemen does not seem to have apparent implications for international security, unless, of course, the traffic in cultural material might somehow provide funding for the insurgents.
The cases in Mali, Syria, and Yemen each represent a different dimension of the relationship between cultural heritage and security. In combination, the three cases emphasize that cultural property is no longer simply a victim of conflict and now plays a practical role in security.

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