Prime Minister Hailemariam at the Conference on Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in UAE…

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), supported by the governments of France and the United Arab Emirates organized the two-day conference on Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage in Abu Dhabi at the end of last week (December 2-3). The conference brought together representatives from over 40 countries in the international community that have been seriously affected by heritage loss due to conflict, as well as key players in world heritage preservation. The conference aimed to support UNESCO's global mandate to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict as well as safeguard historic sites and monuments that represent civilizations dating back millennia from systematic destruction or looting. The conference was also a response to the growing threat to some of the world's most important cultural resources arising from sustained periods of armed conflict, acts of terrorism and illicit looting and trafficking of cultural property. The importance of this has been underlined by the destruction and thefts that have occurred in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Mali, and elsewhere in recent years.

In his introductory remarks, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, said the destruction of cultural heritage was an attempt to obliterate humanity. He said the perpetrators of this evil were using the name of religion. He underscored the urgent need to stop their malevolent and wicked actions. President Francois Hollande of France said his country was championing this cause because of the increasing trend of extremists to launch deliberate and calculated violent attacks on the people and their cultural symbols and heritage in conflict areas. Irini Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO said: "Unfortunately, we see the illicit trafficking of items even without conflict, but in times of conflict we see, I would say, disastrous proportions of looting and trafficking;" adding, "I would argue that it is recognized that the illicit trafficking of objects abroad from Syria is one of the ways of financing extremism". Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece also underscored the need to set up and strengthen international networks for saving and protecting cultural heritage and property. He said the world was witnessing escalation of efforts at deliberate cultural cleansing. This was having devastating effects.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn stressed the deliberate destruction of heritage, now a part of the de-culturization process used by terrorist groups, was more serious than the looting and trafficking of heritages. He said that Ethiopia, home to a wide spread of diverse cultural heritage, was deeply concerned with this deliberate destruction of heritage, intended to de-culturalize the world. He stressed the need for strong cooperation to effectively safeguard cultural heritage from armed conflicts, terrorism, and illicit trafficking. He pointed out that Ethiopia had been subject to heritage plundering and looting from foreign invasions as well as from criminal trafficking. As a victim of cultural heritage plundering and looting it had lost many ancient and valuable manuscripts, religious objects and archaeological remains. Manuscripts illegally taken out of the country included books on religion, medicine, astronomy, the Ethiopian calendar, philosophy, law and administration. The 1868 British expedition and the 1935 Italian invasion were the most extensive examples of the looting of Ethiopia's heritage. The Prime Minister said over 3,500 Ethiopian manuscripts were now believed to be in European countries and the U.S. He urged the international community to help in the restitution of the heritage of Ethiopia, looted during foreign invasions, emphasizing that any processes designed to restore stolen treasures had proved quite extraordinarily slow and cumbersome.

Mohammed Al Mubarak, the Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourist Cultural Authority, said it was never too late to act. He pointed out that acts of cultural destruction and looting were continuing. The Middle East and South Asia region, he said, had been suffering destruction for a considerable time: "from the looting of the Egyptian museum at the start of the Arab Spring to the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, cultural genocide has been rampant in the region," he added.
The two-day conference focused on improving legal and funding mechanisms to facilitate emergency protection of heritage sites as well as post-conflict cultural rehabilitation. It considered the development of concrete and innovative solutions, as well as the creation of a global framework for immediate and long-term goals. It also launched the creation of a global network of safe havens as refuges for endangered works and an international financial fund to sustain long-term programs to preserve cultural heritage, as well as build on the capacity of conservation professionals in conflict areas.

The conference concluded with the ratification and adoption of the Abu Dhabi Declaration. This underlined that the world's cultural heritage is a mirror of mankind, a guardian of collective memory and a witness to the extraordinary creative spirit of humanity, and it represents the foundation of our common future. The Declaration reiterated that the world needed to ensure respect for universal values, in line with the international conventions of The Hague of 1899, 1907, 1954, and the 1954 and 1999 Protocols, which require people of the world to protect cultural property as well as human life in times of armed conflict. The declaration said: "We are committed to pursuing two ambitious, long term, goals to guarantee the further mobilization of the international community for the safeguarding of heritage: The creation of an international fund for the protection of endangered cultural heritage in armed conflict, which would help finance preventive and emergency operations, fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts, as well as contribute to the restoration of damaged cultural property; the creation of an international network of safe havens to temporarily safeguard cultural property endangered by armed conflicts or terrorism on their own territory, or if they cannot be secured at a national level, in a neighboring country, or as a last resort, in another country, in accordance with international law at the request of the governments concerned, and taking into account the national and regional characteristics and contexts of cultural property to be protected.

Following the Declaration, the Conference announced the creation of an international fund for the protection of endangered cultural heritage in armed conflicts. The fund, which aims to raise $100 million when established, will help finance preventive and emergency operations, fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts, and contribute to the restoration of damaged cultural property.  The Conference agreed that the headquarters of the Fund would be located in Switzerland with 10 million dollars as preliminary funding.