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Sixty-ninth General Assembly,
91st Meeting (AM)

Expressing Outrage over Attacks on Cultural Heritage of Iraq, General Assembly Unanimously Adopts Resolution Calling for Urgent Action

Condemning the barbaric destruction and looting of the cultural heritage of Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the General Assembly today deplored the rising incidence of intentional attacks against and threats to such heritage of countries affected by armed conflict.

Unanimously adopting a resolution titled “Saving the cultural heritage of Iraq”, the Assembly expressed outrage that attacks on cultural heritage were used as a tactic of war in order to spread terror and hatred, fan conflict and impose violent extremist ideologies.  It called for the preservation of the cultural heritage of Iraq by protecting cultural and religious properties and sites consistent with international humanitarian law.

The Assembly affirmed that attacks intentionally directed against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, or historic monuments may amount to war crimes, and stressed the importance of holding accountable the perpetrators of such attacks.  It called for intensified efforts by States to protect, preserve, inventory and document items of cultural heritage endangered by armed conflicts, including through close cooperation and exchange among museums, libraries, archives and manuscript collections or other institutions or persons dealing with cultural heritage.

Earlier, speaking on behalf of General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, Vice-President Álvaro Mendonça e Moura expressed concern that barbaric and senseless attacks on irreplaceable artefacts of humanity’s shared cultural heritage were taking place with alarming frequency not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, Syria, Mali and elsewhere.  By destroying invaluable cultural icons found in museums, libraries, archives, archaeological sites and places of worship, extremists were exacerbating conflicts, instigating hostilities and perpetuating fear among societies.

Such attempts must be stopped by all necessary means, in accordance with applicable international law, and those responsible for such acts must be held accountable.  It was incumbent upon the international community to work together to protect elements of cultural heritage in Iraq and elsewhere and the resolution was an important step forward in saving the world’s shared histories.

Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, said the destruction of cultural heritage represented a senseless form of violent extremism against the past, present and future of human civilization.  Tragically, such attacks did not stop in Iraq, he said, but rarely had it reached such unprecedented scale as a tactic of war, financing terrorist activities and promoting hatred.  Coordinated action, improved information sharing and legal action were needed, he said, commending the work of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its partners in dealing with this new global problem.

He urged all Member States to cooperate with international law-enforcement authorities to prevent trade in such items.  The resolution sent a strong message to the people of Iraq on a question on their national identity.  “Let today be a moment of deep reflection on our common responsibility to protect our shared values.”

Introducing the draft, Maria Böhmer, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, described the attacks on cultural heritage as a test case for the international community, which needed to proceed with greater resolve and determination in its response.

The text, co-sponsored by over 80 countries, was an important step forward, as it described such attacks as war crimes and stressed the imperative of prosecuting the perpetrators.  The international community should speak with a single voice for the preservation of the world’s cultural diversity, “because without them we have no future”.

Taking the floor after the adoption, the representative of Iraq said the resolution was of great significance to all of humanity.  His country had undertaken serious and speedy measures to prevent the illegal trafficking of and trade in stolen artefacts, he said, stressing that the resolution came within that national framework as well as the international community’s determination to stand by the people of Iraq and against those who sought to destroy its past, present and future.  The resolution underscored the important role of the United Nations in developing international instruments to enhance the capacity of Member States to preserve human culture.

The representative of Poland, also speaking for Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Italy, said the cultural legacy of Iraq remained at great risk and any further damage to or destruction of its cultural heritage must be immediately put to an end.  The resolution was a necessary step in that direction.

The international community must learn about the importance of protecting the records of human history.  It was the world’s collective responsibility to respect and protect the cultural heritage of societies, he said, strongly condemning the intentional destruction of the cultural heritage wherever it occurred or whoever was the perpetrator.

The representative of Syria said his country had co-sponsored the text and reiterated its support for the efforts of the Iraqi Government and people to safeguard cultural heritage and civilization from barbaric terrorist acts.  Syria would have preferred joint cooperation in protecting the heritage of both countries, he said, stressing that a unified appeal to Governments not to support terrorism and discourse that incited violence and hatred would have been more effective to preventing the despoliation of cultural sites.  Priceless artefacts, some very large, could not have crossed borders without the support of corrupt networks in certain countries.  A challenge of such magnitude required a response that demonstrated nations were united in name only.

Irina Bukova, Director-General of UNESCO, said the resolution represented a turning point in mobilization of the international community against the destruction of cultural heritage, looting of antiquity and “cultural cleansing” in Iraq.  Such brutal and systematic attacks on culture constituted a war crime in Mali, Syria or anywhere they occurred.  The resolution resonated deeply with UNESCO’s mandate and was a test for the United Nations that called on all to review all means by which to defeat violent extremism.

In other business, the Assembly elected the United Kingdom as a member of the Committee for Programme and Coordination, for a term expiring on 31 December 2017.

The Assembly also noted that Tonga had made the payment necessary to reduce its arrears below the amount specified in Article 19 of the Charter.

For information media. Not an official record.