HERITAGE IN TIMES OF UNREST PART 1 of 2
Independent Films, Politics
A look at how Libya's cultural heritage was affected during the recent conflict, and the steps that went into trying to protect it.
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Transcripts / Production notes / Scripts
Libya boasts a rich cultural heritage from Palaeolithic rock paintings, through Greek and Roman ruins and ancient desert oases. These historic treasures, including six UNESCO World Heritage sites, have suffered years of neglect and most recently undergone the perils of conflict.
Karl Von Habsburg, President of the ‘Blue Shield Committee’ in Austria and Dr Joris Kila, Chairman of ‘The International Military Cultural Resources Work Group’ have a common goal in protecting natural and cultural heritage. They realised the need to implement protection planning before a conflict unfolds instead of after when irreparable damage has already been done.
“We both know the importance to be fast and in a place where there is a potential conflict or an actual conflict and you have to be there really fast to make an assessment and to see what you can do to immediately help.”
On a previous visit they and other international specialists took it upon themselves to make a ‘No Strike List’ of all the cultural heritage sites. An initiative that was a first of its kind.
This their second visit has them traveling mainly in the East around Benghazi, assessing to what extent the conflict impacted on the cultural heritage of Libya.
Special entry has been granted to sites that several months earlier had been welded shut for protection. Welding entrances shut is a practice, which Karl and Joris advocate and teach in order to give the best protection to heritage in times of unrest. Although this may work for museums, protecting sites like Leptis Magna and Cyrene in wide-open spaces is a lot more difficult.
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“A group of thieves will steal anything, a thief takes the opportunities provided during riots and chaos which rose out of the revolution and brake in to steal ruins, artefacts and anything else.”
In perhaps the worst case of looting of the conflict nearly eight thousand ancient gold, silver and bronze coins a small number of artefacts were stolen from a Benghazi bank vault. Generally speaking the scale of what has been stolen or looted is difficult to estimate because in some areas extensive documentation, archiving and cataloguing, was never carried out. Yet Libya seems to have avoided the kind of cultural looting and vandalism that occurred after the war in Iraq.
Karl and Joris feel that they are providing a service that other heritage organisations do not currently fulfil.
“because it is dangerous, because it costs money, we don’t know, but we are filling the gap and we hope that we will encourage them to take over part of our duties and do the work that has to be done. One of the things is to liaison with the military and that is why I am the chair of this international military cultural resources working group, because we can bridge the gap between NGOs or IOs, civilian organizations and military organizations.”
Their military backgrounds have helped them to understand how best to talk to the armed forces and ensure that the preservation of cultural heritage is factored into the planning of military operations.
“I generally think that this sort of planning about cultural heritage protection will have to be part of any sort of military planning in the future, just by the nature of the conflicts that we are facing.”
“Of course in a conflict of ethnicities the identity of the opponent is the most important target and therefore the cultural heritage of the opponent is the most important target. And with this targeting of cultural heritage it is important to implement it in to the planning, and that is what we are trying to preach, to teach were we can but also to live and to act on it.”
Should this be the responsibility of the military? Joris and Karl feel it is. It’s already in the International Humanitarian Law of the 1954 Hague Convention and protocols that countries, including their military, should develop strategies for the protection of a countries heritage in times of conflict. The military can act to prevent damage, but also benefit by denying an enemy what could potentially be a way of funding a conflict.
“I’ll give you one example for instance when the opposing forces or insurgents if you want, are organizing their own looting and excavations as the Taliban for instance have done and the insurgents in Iraq, they will sell the cultural objects, they will smuggle it out if the country and with the profits that they gain, the opposing forces will buy weapons and things like that, so if you protect cultural property as a military you deny the enemy financial resources, so it’s a force multiplier clearly.”
This is the NATO Channel, reporting from Libya.
Year of Production: 2011
Country: United States