“A country is not recognised by its size on the map, but by its culture” Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova quoted His Highness the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former President of the UAE at the International Conference for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Areas on 2nd and 3rd December in Abu Dhabi, coinciding with the UAE’s National Day.
The conference saw speakers from 40 States across 5 continents, with speakers presenting their testimonies of cultural heritage destruction in their own countries during conflict in Mali, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iraq urging States to learn from their experience and focus on prevention, through education, training and digitisation, as well as intervention and return of cultural property.
Two initiatives were announced and committed to at the conference, through the Abu Dhbai Declaration. The first was the creation of an international fund for safeguarding of cultural heritage in conflict zones, which will be based in Geneva and tasked with developing fundraising (from private and public sources) and implementing projects safeguarding cultural heritage and preventing illicit trafficking. The fund will also support the second initiative, the creation of an international network of safe havens. France led by example by announcing the Louvre and the National Library would both be made available as safe havens whilst His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, emphasised the “collective responsibility of the world” to protect cultural heritage and called for collaborating States to take measures to combat illicit trafficking of cultural property.
Whilst the topic of safe havens often sparks controversy and debate, the Abu Dhbai declaration seeks to address such concerns by emphasising the importance of return, stating that safe havens in other States should be a last resort, at the request of the government concerned and only when cultural property cannot safely remain in its own country or a neighbouring country.
France pledged $30,000,000 at the conference and the UAE also promised a significant contribution as the co-founding State, towards the $100,000,000 fund target and urged collaborating States to contribute. China committed to a donation “that corresponds with China’s status”. The first measures and tasks for the fund are expected to be approved in 2017 with a second conference to assess the implementation of the first projects in late 2017. Heads of State and their representatives from at least 14 other States spoke at the conference to confirm their commitment to the initiative and publicly offer their support.
Fionnuala Rogers is an associate at Pinsent Masons LLP with a detailed specialism in cultural property law. The photograph of Abu Dhabi was taken by Vikramjit Kakati (CC BY-SA 4.0).