The Cable

UNESCO Fights Back As ISIS Tries to Stamp Out Culture

In an interview with Foreign Policy, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova talks about why cultural destruction matters in the fight against terrorism.


ISIS uses grisly violence to terrorize the West, recruit supporters, and subjugate people in the areas it controls. But it’s also waging a quieter war against more abstract enemies: culture and heritage.

As ISIS seized swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, it began destroying historic sites and artifacts, some thousands of years old. Museums, monuments, cultural sites getting caught in the crossfire of war is nothing new. But what ISIS is doing is different, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova told Foreign Policy.

The group sells ancient artifacts to bankroll its war machine and demolishes sites to demoralize its enemies and erase multicultural symbols — moves that all support the group’s wider plan. It’s “quite new, quite unseen, systematic and deliberate,” Bokova said, speaking on the sidelines of FP’s Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi. “It goes hand in hand with the destruction of diversity, persecution…of minorities.”

A key example was Palmyra, where the group recorded blowing up the ancient city that symbolized Syria’s historic multiculturalism, then spread the video footage on the internet to gin up extremist support and recruit new fighters.

Bokova calls it “cultural cleansing,” and what worries her even more is ISIS found a way to make money from it. ISIS sells ancient antiquities on the black market to raise funds — and it’s no small change. The State Department estimates it’s made millions off looting antiquities (though the exact amount is hard to track and estimates vary widely; Russia estimated the terrorist group made $150 – 200 million a year off such activities in 2016). The terrorist group even has its own “war spoils” bureaucracy, which manages the sale of everything from hostages to oil to antiquities to line its coffers. “This is something new we have not seen before,” Bokova said.

As head of the U.N.’s culture and education arm, Bokova is fighting on the frontlines of this new kind of warfare. The former Bulgarian foreign affairs minister lobbied hard in her U.N. seat for international action to clamp down on ISIS’s war on heritage. It’s a slow, laborious process, but there are hints of progress.

In February 2015, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution explicitly condemning ISIS’s profiteering and destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. Bokova hopes the resolution spurs countries to crack down on the antiquities black market and focus on cultural destruction as a war crime.

The U.S. Congress heeded the call. A month after the U.N. resolution, the House passed a bill, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, to ban the import of artifacts from Syria and stem the flow of the ISIS antiquities trade.

And in 2016, the International Criminal Court issued its first ever conviction exclusively for “cultural destruction” in a landmark case. After surrendering to the ICC in 2015, al Qaeda-linked militant Islamist Ahamd al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced to nine years prison for destroying ancient cultural sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

Needless to say, cultural sites aren’t the main victims of the war in Syria and Iraq. When pressed on why to protect cultural sites when so many people are suffering or in danger of losing their lives, Bokova called it a false dichotomy. The two are mutually supportive. “[When] you destroy identities of people, destroy their history, you destroy the reasoning for future reconciliation and peace,” Bokova said.

When war refugees live in camps for years, merely shipping them food and tents won’t cut it. To bring back a sense of normalcy and repair their lives, culture plays a key role, Bokova said. If Syria ever finds peace, Syrians need a “Syria” to return home to and rebuild — culture, heritage, and all.

Update: This article was updated to include new figures on how much ISIS makes off the antiquities trade.

Photo credit: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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