UNESCO raises $75.5 mn to protect heritage from war, terror

Hervé ASQUIN, Valerie DEKIMPE
The Roman amphitheatre in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria is one of the sites ransacked by the Islamic State group

Seven countries and an American donor on Monday pledged $75.5 million (70 million euros) to a UNESCO-backed fund aimed at protecting the world's cultural heritage against war and terrorism.

French President Francois Hollande hosted the gathering at the Louvre museum in Paris of influential art patrons and world leaders at the initiative of the UN cultural body, the United Arab Emirates and France.

Their International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones (ALIPH), based in Geneva, aims to raise $100 million by 2019.

"At Bamiyan, Mosul, Palmyra, Timbuktu and elsewhere, fanatics have engaged in trafficking, looting and the destruction of cultural heritage, adding to the persecution of populations," Hollande said.

Speaking in the Louvre's Khorsabad courtyard, which houses the imposing remains of a 706 BC palace from ancient Mesopotamia, the land of modern-day Iraq, Hollande said the country was a priority in the global fight against cultural destruction.

The region "is home to a civilisation thousands of years old that we cannot abandon to the abomination of terrorism," he added.

The funds will be used to help prevent the destruction of historic sites in conflict zones, combat the illicit trade in cultural artifacts and help restore damaged relics.

France pledged $30 million to the fund, followed by Saudi Arabia with $20 million and co-host UAE with $15 million. Kuwait, Luxembourg and Morocco pledged $5.0 million, $3.0 million and $1.5 million, respectively.

US philanthropist Tom Kaplan pledged $1 million, while Switzerland offered logistical support that it valued at $8.0 million.

More funds and in-kind support are in the pipeline from Italy, Britain, Germany, China, South Korea and Mexico.

A total of 40 countries pledged their support to the initiative at a conference in Abu Dhabi in December.

- Safe havens -

A network of safe havens for endangered artworks was also put in place, allowing cultural property to be stored abroad temporarily, but only as a last resort.

Some countries, including Egypt and Greece, expressed reservations about such zones, citing sovereignty claims.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told participants at the time there should be "guarantees for the safe return" of national treasures.

For the past 30 years Athens has been demanding the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles, which decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in ancient times, from Britain.

In his speech on Monday, Hollande emphasised that measures would be taken to ensure that "sovereignty principles will be respected."

After Islamic State group fighters seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in May 2015, they systematically destroyed and looted the temples of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The group also ravaged the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq using bulldozers and explosives, and ransacked pre-Islamic treasures in Mosul's museum.

Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, and Mali's Timbuktu are other UNESCO sites to suffer destruction at the hands of Islamic extremists.

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