$75 million pledged to protect heritage sites in war zones

By THOMAS ADAMSON, Associated Press

World donors pledged more than $75 million this week to an historic UNESCO-backed alliance to protect cultural heritage sites threatened by war and the wave of ideological-driven destruction carried out by Islamic State group militants.

French President Francois Hollande, speaking at a donors’ conference in Paris’ Louvre Museum, passionately called on more countries to contribute to the newly-created heritage alliance and help push it past its “ambitious” $100 million goal.

“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.

A number of cultural artifacts and heritage sites have fallen victim to the Islamic State group. In 2015, the ancient Syrian ruins of Palmyra were seized by militants who then destroyed the UNESCO heritage site’s famed temples of Bel and Baalshamin. IS militants raided Iraq’s Mosul museum claiming its pre-Islamic statues were against Islam. The 13th-century B.C. Assyrian city of Nimrud was hit with bombs and bulldozers.

In coordination with UNESCO, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas  aims to prevent heritage site destruction, fight trafficking of stolen artifacts and pay for restoration. But it also seeks to create a global network of storage and safeguarding sites.

“The first emergency is Iraq. We will need to carry out a precise inventory of the damages to monuments, museums and libraries. But there are other critical situations. Mali, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria,” he added.

Hollande suggested that a Group of Seven culture ministers meeting in Florence next week could be used to get further donations.

Six countries and one philanthropist pledged a total of $75.5 million at this week’s  conference, which was held in an ancient Middle Eastern sculpture-clad wing of the Louvre.

France pledged the most at $30 million, with support forthcoming from Arab countries — including Saudi Arabia ($20 million), the United Arab Emirates ($15 million), Kuwait ($5 million) and Morocco ($1.5 million.)

Luxembourg pledged $3 million, and private donor Thomas Kaplan promised $1 million.

Switzerland pledged a further $8 million in operational and administrative costs to help set up the fund’s first headquarters in Geneva.

Italy, meanwhile, said it would provide an ALIPH task force that includes military personnel and conservation experts.

Germany, China and Mexico said they would help by storing the heritage objects threatened by war in national museums, and lobby countries to do the same.

The first concrete steps to creating ALIPH came about in a meeting between Hollande and Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in the Emirati capital in December.

“This achievement is truly historic,” said Mohamed Al Mubarak, the crown prince’s special representative.

“Since the Abu Dhabi declaration was signed in December 2016, the efforts to transform an idea into a concrete action have been extraordinary…. This effort has happened and will not be forgotten.”