MoOC - Sharing Europe through European Heritage

4/ Heritage abuse and geopolitical disorder at the dawn of the third millennium

Cultural heritage is in a paradoxical situation. It has never before been so celebrated, so exploited, so commercialised, and yet, as it grows in parallel with world tourism, it is also instrumentalized, plundered and destroyed to such an extent that it has even become a target in armed conflicts. The effects attributed to cultural heritage are both ambivalent and contradictory. While we praise its power of social reconciliation and moral reparation, at the same time it is shown to be anxiogenic and even belligerent, becoming a catalyst for identity-based tensions. Now more than ever, the heritage phenomenon must be considered critically as an indicator of geopolitical disorder at the beginning of the third millennium. 

This article has been published in a slightly different version but with the same title, in the journal Ethnologies, Laval University (Québec), vol. 39, n°1, 2018, p. 27-49.


Robert Belot
Robert BELOT is full Professor in Contemporary History at Jean Monnet University (Saint-Etienne, France) where he leads the Cultural Heritage Department. He is the director of a national Master in History, Civilization and Heritage and the coordinator of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree DYCLAM+. He holds the European Jean Monnet Chair 'EUPOPA' and he is the designer of the Propeace Project; he is member of the Research Center UMR CNRS n°5060 in Lyon (Environnement-Ville-Société).


The theme which brings us together here is one of a kind. It stems from the observation of a situation in paradox. Cultural heritage has never before been so celebrated, explored and monetized in keeping with the rise to power of globalization and tourism. There is even talk of "the right to heritage," in connection with the appearance of demands for restitution. Yet, at the same time, heritage has never found itself so vilified, instrumentalized, plundered and destroyed to such an extent that it has become a weapon, even a target of war; there are said to be "threats to the memory of the human race" (Perrin 2016).

Historians, in somewhat of a condescending manner, had the tendency to treat heritage as a "support for an identity that is suffering" (Rioux 2006: 38) or "a remedy for those times of crisis" (Hartog 2016: 57). People liked to joke about "everything being heritage." The devastations of heritage caused from 2014 to 2016 in Iraq and Syria by the group known as the "Islamic State" have been radical game changers. A great historian of days gone by, Paul Veyne, honorary professor at the Collège de France, came out of retirement to raise a horrified cry when the Palmyra site was ransacked (Veyne 2015). This was not merely a pre-Islamic site, a symbol of some sort of multiculturalism, which had been destroyed; it was UNESCO, an institution, which was at stake and at the same time an expression of heritage as a witness to what had come before us.

The effects we attribute to heritage are both ambivalent and contradictory. It can appear like a pain reliever, being, as it is, reputedly virtuous by reason of its miraculous power of social resilience, of reconciliation, of restoration.* See the Namur Declaration (April 22-24, 2015) on the occasion of the 6th conference of ministers of the Council of Europe on the Cultural Heritage of Europe: "Le patrimoine culturel au XXIe siècle pour mieux vivre ensemble. Vers une stratégie commune pour l'Europe". At the same time, however, the connection to heritage may be worrisome, even a cause for war, being, as it is, a source of conflict since it stimulates tensions in terms of identity. It can lead to occasions of deheritagization: think about the wave of statue dismantlings (in the United States, in Canada and elsewhere) which has unfolded starting in the middle of the 2010s.

More than ever before, the heritage phenomenon must be given critical consideration. Here, since the relevance of the issue invites us, we propose to consider it as being a revealer of the geopolitical disorders of our era.

I Political issues threatening cultural heritage

Heritage is undergoing a change in status: a mirror of the disorders and the violence occurring in today's world, it is an element which helps to comprehend that world. Little by little, it is eluding the sort of unchanging folklorism where it was long imprisoned. As the third millennium begins, Islamic terrorism has recently caused it to move into our daily sphere in a spectacular and dramatic fashion through a morbid ritualization of the high-powered destruction of coverage by the media. The new element is that heritage as heritage has become a weapon and a target for war.

Three woes pose a threat to cultural heritage.

1/ Patrimonial hatred

Anti-heritage violence generally steps in in case of war (foreign or civil) or of violent political breakdown (the Vichy regime, decolonization, the fall of the USSR, etc.). The new regime intends to "cleanse" the public space of symbols from the preceding government and rewrite the urban tale. Colonel Nasser, after having nationalized the Suez Canal, had the statue removed of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the canal's designer. In Congo in the 1960s, the statue of Leopold II, the Belgian king, disappeared from the public space (to make a re-appearance recently, thanks to the United Nations' mission to the Congo). The explosion which occurred in the USSR also saw the urban landscape of former Soviet countries lose landmark monuments, for example, the well-known dismantling of the statue of Félix Dzerjinski in Moscow on August 22, 1991. Some ex-communist countries have chosen to establish "statue parks" where they have "exiled" the most controversial pieces. According to the architect of Memento Park, in Budapest, where can be found statues of Lenin, Marx and Engels, "the site represents dictatorship, but since people may talk about it and criticize it, it also represents democracy."

Heritage as a challenge and a target for war and conflict is an old old story. Here, it is a matter of taking note of the very contemporary changes in this phenomenon which started at the end of the XXth century, in Europe, when Yugoslavia blew up.

The destruction of the historic centre of Dubrovnik has become symbolic of cultural crime (Bories 2005) and of "ritualized urbicide." The Bosnian Serbs are not merely responsible for an "ethnic cleansing"; they carried out a "monumental purification" by physically wiping out the Muslim symbols. In Banja Luka, the XVIth century mosques, classified as a part of world heritage, were destroyed (Chaslin 1997; Veschambre 2008). In Sarajevo, the library was destroyed. It involved erasing all traces of the multi-ethnic nature of ex-Yugoslavia and, moreover, attacking the history of which heritage is the sign. The hatred of heritage always results from an inability to admit the historicity of things, people and communities, but also from a belief in the possibility of an origin which is "pure" and absolute. Its horizon line is one of totalitarianism or nihilism. People rightly spoke of "memory-cide" (Brossard and Vidal 2001: 188).

The Islamic terrorism which followed the Cold War signaled a renewal of the culture-killing arsenal and re-armed patrimonial hatred from the Taliban's blowing up of the Bouddhas of Barniyan in Afghanistan (March 2001) to the destruction of Palmyra's arc de triomphe (October 5, 2015)*One might add the destruction, in Mali, of several mausoleums, of the main mosque in Timbuktu and the burning of manuscripts (June-July 2012), the destruction, in Libya, (August 2012) and profanation of the mausoleum of al-Chaab al-Dahmani the wise in Tripoli, the looting, in Mosul, of the museum's pre-Islamic heritage and an immense book burning ceremony (February 2015). along with the attack on the Bardo museum (March 18, 2015) near Tunis. The cultural items became part of a geopolitical game, a weapon of war, in fact, a source of war. The ruined cultural setting became an instrument for propaganda, a "discursive landscape" (Tratnjeck 2009) which answers to the current rationales of excessive media coverage.

This regression of civilization cannot help but make one think, for example, of the Nazi regime and its policy to wipe out culture and to erase history. Hatred of heritage, wherever it is found and in whatever centuries, makes up part of an ideology which both denies the historicity of humanity and condemns cultural diversity. One comes to the point of considering that the protection of heritage is a "human right," like Pope Francis who, in his general audience on Wednesday, November 30, 2016, welcomed the holding of a conference on endangered heritage (one initiated by France and the United Arab Emirates) because he judged that "the protection of culture's riches represents a crucial dimension in defense of human beings."

In fact, the denial of heritage, as evidenced in the actions of Islamic terrorists, who destroy the museums and monuments of history, is not only replaying yet again the iconoclastic and iconophobic card which casts a shadow on the three great monotheistic religions. It means denying the Other, and it also means denying oneself by cutting oneself off from the long process of evolution that has made us what we are today. In so doing, man claims the right to play God, something which, however, all monotheistic religions forbid and prohibit: he has refused the status in history which God assigned him, knowing that God himself is located outside history, where the indescribable and the unrepresentable rule. And it is there where anti-heritage folly dwells: deciding that humanity could do without the past, could free itself from the History which is its estate. Terror is always the cursed point to which leads the temptation to culturicide, which is twice the desire for Uchronia (non-time or anti-time). It is a form of present-day nihilism. For this reason people have finally begun to mention the concept of "cultural genocide."

The movement to destroy heritage has triggered worldwide emotion for it arose to counter, in fact, a policy promoted by UNESCO which aimed at setting up cultural heritage as a definitive symbol of universalism and, after the Cold War, of planetary reconciliation. "World" heritage had become the tangible sign of the dialectic resolution between universality, diversity and identity. It was the positive dimension of globalization. As Hoffman aptly noted in 2006 in his introduction to the book Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice, "In the past 50 years, and especially the last ten or so, it has become clear that culture counts and that protecting it is a task which concerns not only a people, and sovereign nations, but also the international community" (Hoffman 2006: 1). The arrival of the worst (heritage terrorism) dealt a very sharp blow to this eschatology of the best.

2/Deprivation, predation and denial

Suppression and demolition represent the most radical forms of deheritagization. It can take a less precipitous form: deprivation and predation. It is an ancient story which is ever new.

Deprivation involves cutting off a society (or a group) from its history and its possessions, whether tangible or not. In this case, heritage is understood in the sense of cultural identity. This phenomenon appears when a country decides to dominate another country or to annex another country's region where it wishes to impose its value, rituals, symbols, in fact, its heritage. Such was the case for Alsace-Moselle from 1870 to 1919 where a sort of "cultural uprooting" was imposed: French was replaced with German as the official language; school libraries were emptied in order to be well supplied with German books and manuals; a new history was taught to the children; the French flag was forbidden. Russian domination in Crimea played out with similar conditions imposed on the Tatars, from Catherine II to Stalin, an action which involved mass exoduses and displacements, another radical means which Stalinism used with other peoples as well. This was a case of "cultural mutilation." Mention could be made, too, of the policy of deculturation which Japan inflicted on Korea beginning in 1910. It went so far as to force surname changes on the population, a veritable violation of identity, with the official slogan: "Naisen ittai" (making Koreans totally into Japanese) (Belot 2013).

Deprivation and mutilation can take on the form of predation. In this case, it is a question of a kind of "raid" carried out after a military and political show of force to enable those in power at any given moment to take over cultural or artistic property to increase their own heritage. Napoleon became an expert at this approach to forced requisition, both in Italy and in Germany, a policy which, in the final analysis, strengthened the cultural power of France by creating a "universal museum." For this reason, today in the Louvre one can reflect on The Wedding at Cana. This masterpiece from the Veronese artist is, in fact, a war trophy, which was awarded to France by the Treaty of Campoformio on October 17, 1797 as a contribution from the war. After its restoration, in 1992, lawyer Arno Klarsfeld and Carla Bruni launched a media campaign for the return of the painting to the refectory of the Benedictines of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.

If we stick to the XXth century, we can think of the French public archives which were taken as war booty by the Nazis and then the Soviets (Coeuré 2007). However, the most dramatic operation, in terms of racism, was the plundering by Vichy (Jungius 2012) and by the Nazis of the Jews and their artistic works. This question was slow in being studied. Today, it is very well documented, to such an extent that judiciary procedures for restitution are underway. The revelation, at the outset of November 2013, of the almost accidental seizing of 1,406 paintings in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an eighty-year-old man, made news around the world. In Europe, the "Einsatzstab Rosenberg"*"Groupe d'intervention Rosenberg" ravaged museums and libraries, confiscating works of art and collections, and ransacked private dwellings. Its own records show the importance of these confiscations. Over 21,903 pieces of art were taken in this way. Nor was the Red Army forgotten. It stole, mainly in Germany, more than one million pieces (paintings, sculptures, archeological items, literary works, archives). This matter is still a source of diplomatic tension between Germany and Russia.

Another news item, brought to light by French president Emmanuel Macron, in his speech in Burkina Faso (November 28, 2017): the restitution of African heritage possessions amassed by Europeans who imposed "the story of their past on the rest of the world" (Goody 2010). European museums are richly endowed with that which was extracted from African countries in the course of colonization. Once again, this relation to heritage gives witness to a show of force. Yet we cannot deny that it also expresses the interest on the part of ethnologists, anthropologists and artists in various cultures. Think of the influence of African masks on the development of Picasso's artistry. The Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic mission (1931-1933) was conducted by unimpeachable scholars: Marcel Griaule (the Dogon specialist who led it), Paul Rovet, Georges-Henri Rivière and Michel Leiris, all of the conviction, as Rivet wrote, that "humanity is one indivisible whole." This 20,000-km expedition was the step which gave rise to the creation, in 1937, of the Museum of Man, a place of multi-disciplinary research associated with a collective will for popular education (Men 1982: 69-100). It is significant to note that the Museum of Man was, during the Occupation, a hot spot for the Nazi resistance movement.

In December 2017, the Algerian state officially requested that France return the skulls of soldiers killed during the XIXth century colonial wars which were in the possession of the Museum of Man. This practice was common at that time. Today, the question of restitution has become a worldwide phenomenon and an issue both cultural and geopolitical (Hershkovitch and Rykner 2011; Stamatoudi 2011). People tend to consider restitution as part of "a new international moral code" (Barkan 2011: 83).

The theft and trafficking of cultural property are another type of disdain and mutilation in terms of heritage. The destabilization of the Middle East, since 2011, has given rise to a resurgence of this phenomenon whose goals are essentially monetary. On February 12, 2015, resolution 2-199 of the Security Council took note of the "pillaging and contraband trade in objects belonging to the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria." The European Union decided to develop a policy for prevention and restriction in this area.

Finally, it is appropriate to deal with a dimension of heritage deprivation which is difficult to grasp, but which, none the less, is an important element in societies and the way they view themselves. It is the phenomenon of denial or of repression stemming from a community which refuses (consciously or not) to grant recognition to a memory that harks back to a difficult page in its history and which risks weakening social agreement. Every nation is built on its own story, one which emanates from a fictional and mythological version. It is the "national novel," a story, usually irenic, epic and often heroic, that sets aside anything which might divide. Heritage is, by nature, selective and deprives itself (and us) of numerous swathes of history. Often, heritagization happens without rather than against history. Just one among many examples: the first institutional exhibition on the Cooperation during the German occupation in France dates from 2015. It occurred at the National Archives in Paris, where it was presented as "a rereading of this complex legacy through numerous documents, mostly unpublished, coming from prestigious heritage institutions, both French and foreign, as well as from private collections."The president of the Republic opened it in person. The publicity material for this exhibition featured the portrait of Marshal Pétain, head of state from 1940 to 1945, something which French society would not have allowed twenty years previous. In fact, it was the heritage of the Resistance and its fabled story which were long focused on. It took time for the "difficult" heritage to continue.

In the countries of central Europe, formerly of the Soviet bloc, can be seen a tendency to repress and even erase that which turns thoughts back to the communist past. However, the situation would need to be analyzed country by country to bring out a more nuanced reading. For example, in 1992, in the Bulgarian city of Dimitrovgrad, the monument of Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern man, was removed by the new authorities. There followed a polemic. Finally, the municipal council decided, ten years later, to reinstall the statue, but in a very discreet manner, in one of the city parks. All the same, a lively debate ensued about the fate of the huge monument ("the saucer") inaugurated in 1981 for the 90th anniversary of the creation of Bouzloudja, in the Balkans (1,450 m in altitude), by the Bulgarian communist party. Historians want to maintain this testimony to communist art, while others see in it a history lesson which could contribute to the civic education of young people. Today it has been delivered to the fans of ruin porn (Minard 2018).

The statues of the old regime have been dismantled, destroyed or removed from public view. In Romania, for example, the families of victims of the communist system labour to have their own history recognized by the nation and to initiate a process of memorialisation. The memorial to the victims of communism and the Sighet resistance (a prison) only got off the ground (in 1997) with the assistance of the European Union. The Tirana National Historic Museum, Albania's largest, overlooks the Italian and German occupation, but also the communist dictatorship (1944-1991) and the presidency of Salim Berisha (UNESCO 2004: 31). It is a heritage of the gaps.

At times, and paradoxically so, this repression goes so far as to prize the dark periods which preceded the imposition of the communist yoke. One might think of Hungary, where, on November 13, 2013, a statue was erected to Admiral Horthy, the "Hungarian Pétain", who took violent anti-Semitic measures even before the war and who drafted a policy to collaborate with Hitler's Reich. This promotion of a negative heritage, so contrary to the values on which post-war Europe was founded, hardly stirred European opinion at all. However, this heritage act can be interpreted as the sign of the dangerous rise to power in Europe of National populism.

UNESCO is very discreet regarding what it sometimes labels "difficult" or "dissonant heritage." This discretion reflects a general reticence to call up the painful past of communist Europe; this heritage did not have its Nuremberg and has barely aroused international compassion.

3/ Instrumentalizing heritage

There is a third woe suffered by Heritage, namely, its instrumentalization, that is, its manipulation for political ends.

One example which has recently caught the attention of the media and social networks illustrates this phenomenon: it has been discovered that American white supremacists were using southern monumental heritage to legitimize their racist contentions. Denouncing these practices plunged America, in 2017, into a serious crisis surrounding historical consciousness.

It all began in 2015 when demonstrators painted the words Black Lives Matter on the statue of General Lee in Charlottesville; the statue was removed and the park renamed "Emancipation Park." Two years later, violent demonstrations occurred, causing one death (militant antiracist Heather Heyer) on August 12, 2017. The importance was discovered of the alt-right identity movement and its links to European extremist movements. Cities decided, as a precautionary measure, to remove statues which might be targeted. At times, activists set about brutal dismantlings, as in Durham (North Carolina), where they overturned a confederate statue with chants of: "No racism, no KKK, no Fascism!"

The issue has become national and political. Nancy Pelosi, the head of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, demanded that statues erected in tribute to confederate soldiers (among them the statue of General Lee) be removed from the Washington Capitol. According to a 2016 report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a specialist in extremist movements and civil rights, more than 1,500 confederate symbols are still in place across the country. In all of America, "revisers for the dead" have gone on the hunt for public commemorative references deemed to be morally inappropriate and judged incompatible with society's current values. A statue is threatened in Central Park; a restaurant has had to be rechristened since its name (Fowler & Wells) brought to mind a pseudo-theory used to justify the enslaving of Blacks; the mosaic of the metro station in Times Square has to be redrawn since it is reminiscent of the confederate flag; two stained-glass windows representing Southern generals are going to be removed from the National cathedral in Washington. Foreign figures are also to be targeted: New York's mayor announced on August 17, 2017 the removal, on Broadway, from the promenade of the Canyon of Heroes, a commemorative plaque placed in 1931 as a tribute to Marshal Pétain, a "Nazi collaborator." He is calling together a committee of experts to identify the "symbols of hatred."

This crisis speaks to the fact that Americans have trouble being at peace with their history (especially their memory of slavery), something which shows the race question has not been solved and the social model remains fragile. Two bodies with different claims to heritage shared America and we wanted to know nothing of the fact. This crisis also shows that heritage is not always the agent of reconciliation and peacemaking which we generally attribute to it. It can be a source of division, a fomenter of conflict.

The phenomenon spread and a worldwide polemic arose: should the monuments of controversial heroes be dismantled? In the United Kingdom, people suddenly recalled the suspicion that Admiral Horatio Nelson might have been a white supremacist; in the Guardian, writer Afua Hirsh called for the removal from the London landscape of the monument honouring the British hero. Quebeckers, too, were not immune to the cry for the same Nelson looked down from atop an imposing column erected in Montreal at Place Jacques Cartier. In the face of this movement now rereading in radical fashion the presence of monuments to past history, some historians have reacted by reminding that history is history… They denounce, as Canadian Michael J. Carley, these attempts which aim to "rewrite, launder, falsify history." American Dell Upton argues that "a monument in a public space cannot represent just one point of view," but it must strive for consensus. The debate has begun.

In a dramatic and newsworthy manner as well, the great question arises as to the relation of memory to history and the political uses/misuses of history. Today's societies (even the most modern and the most powerful) are, thus, often subject to the return of repressed history which risks threatening social cohesion. What is at stake in this, due to social pressure, is the brutal reconversion of a "glorious" heritage into a "shameful" heritage, also known as a dark heritage.

Gradually, because of the internationalization of its scope, heritage has become a parameter in international relations, a marker of geopolitical tension, a diplomatic issue. This can be seen in a recent example.

On July 7, 2017, UNESCO decreed that the old city of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, should be considered a "protected zone" of World Heritage in Danger, being a site "of outstanding universal value in danger." It is known that this region of the world, where the world's three monotheistic religions mingle, is very sensitive. Symbol and heritage play an important role in how issues are perceived and in the sparking of crises. In Hebron, a Palestinian city, a few hundred Israeli settlers occupy an enclave which is near the Tomb of the Patriarchs (where lie, it is said, the remains of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions). However, on this site also stands the Ibrahim mosque, which is holy to Muslims. Palestinians feel their heritage to be threatened by vandalism on the part of the settlers. They have long denounced the attacks on their heritage brought on by the Separation Wall which divides hundreds of archeological and cultural heritage sites from their original environment. For this reason, Palestine had hoped to become a "member state" of UNESCO in 2011.*That same year, Bethlehem was listed in UNESCO's world heritage. For the Palestinians, the UNESCO decision was "one successful step in the diplomatic battle carried on by the Palestinians on all fronts in the face of Israeli and American pressure." The Israeli government's reaction was to allude to an act which represented a "negation of the Jewish history of the city"; it spoke of a "moral stain," and "one of the most disgraceful moments in the history of UNESCO."

After this listing, the United States and Israel withdrew from UNESCO on October 12, 2017. On December 6, 2017, the American government went even further by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli State. It then decided to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The internationalization by the UN, in 1947, of the "thrice holy" city did not prevent the crystallizations, both in terms of identity and religion, which have made this, for some, a "focal point in the clash of civilizations."

In this case, heritage has lost its healing virtues: instrumentalized by the various parties, it has become a concrete expression of geopolitical tensions.

II The emergence of a diplomatic, technological and judicial defense

Too often, faced with the worst, talk is taken for action! However, the international community today is not left powerless. The new technologies come along as a means to limit the worst. The universal emotion generated by the cultural terrorism of a group known as Daech and the danger of geopolitical destabilization it represents have challenged states and international bodies to live up to their responsibilities. There is emerging a diplomacy of heritage. At the UN as in Europe, we can foresee a new legal framework to neutralize the trafficking of cultural property which has been gained by wrongful means.

1/ Restoring, rebuilding

Archeologists have been the first to use computer graphics in search of the past. Investigative techniques have also become restorative techniques. Because of the new image processing technologies, destructions can no longer be what they were. A resurrection is now possible, thanks to the digital revolution which is also a promise of eternality. In fact, the digitalization of writings, images and sites, along with the virtualization of museums, makes it possible to transcend absence and to avert loss. Hence the paradox of heritage which has become a reflection, a tool and a conduit for modernity with the help of new technologies and social networks that offer extraordinary possibilities for preserving, for intervention and for dissemination. Two examples give witness to this.

In January 2015, the organization known as the "Islamic State" moved to destroy contents in the museum in Mosul, Iraq: statues from the site of Hatra, listed among UNESCO's world heritage, two winged Assyrian bulls, various objects coming from other archeological sites in the province of Nineveh. There was a global outcry. However, its most concrete expression came from two students who decided to carry out a virtual reconstitution in 3D of the destroyed objects. This project (named "RecoVR Mosul" and supported by The Economist Media Lab) implements the technique of crowdsourcing (participative production) which enables net surfers to send photos of lost works taken from various angles. These undergo "photogrammetry" using a computer program which assembles them into a three-dimensional collage.

With the help of a 3D printer, life-size copies of the Arch of Palmyra were created and erected in April 2016 in both London's Trafalgar Square and New York's Times Square. Digitalizing gives new life. The French start-up ICONEM understood that drones were an interesting option for retrieving photographic data from sites in danger. For what purpose? To establish an emergency document protocol in view of studies and digital reconstruction. Since 2013, it has been involved in 3D reconstructions of major archeological sites which are either being threatened or already destroyed: Pompeii, Afghanistan, Iraq… Its imaging, based on drone photography and photogrammetry, will provide a documentary foundation for rebuilding the Palmyra site.

Initiatives have been undertaken by international organizations. The United Nations, through the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), has finetuned the UNOSAT program which is destined to provide image analyses and satellite solutions for organizations working in the humanitarian field, in security and also in that of endangered heritage. UNOSAT is backed by the computerized infrastructure of the CERN Computer Laboratory for the compilation and analysis of satellite data and for the production of detailed geographic mapping of world regions affected or threatened by conflict or natural disaster. The challenge is to enable experts to do a precise evaluation of the needs in planning measures for restoration and rebuilding.

Under pressure from Paris and Abou Dhabi, on December 2 and 3, 2016, an international conference was held on "endangered heritage." It brought together representatives from some forty states and private institutions which endorsed the creation of a fund and a network of shelters to protect heritage in times of conflict (100 million dollars, of which France will contribute 30 million). Thus was born, March 20, 2017, the Alliance for the protection of endangered heritage, which is intended to develop and implement preventive or emergency actions and participate in restorative operations. It is known as the "Abou Dhabi Declaration."

It was not by accident that this conference was held in the United Arab Emirates! It is in this country that the "Abou Dhabi Louvre" has been created. For one billion Euros, this new cultural centre has acquired the "Louvre" brand and the loan of collections belonging to French museums. This museum is presented as "the first universal museum in the Arab world," a symbol of "openness" and "tolerance" and of the struggle "against obscurantism." The "Abou Dhabi Louvre" was opened on November 8, 2017. It will house a work of Leonardo da Vinci bought at auction by this museum (for over 450 million dollars) in the fall of 2017: Salvador Mundi.

It is quite appropriate to take note of the participation of a Middle Eastern country in this undertaking. It is one way of giving the lie to those who see in these attacks a "war of civilizations" between West and East. Heritage hatred is a war against civilization itself, and first and foremost against the culture and history of those who commit such attacks.

2/ Punishing and warning

For a short time now, we have understood the possibility of mobilizing international justice efforts in order to punish the perpetrators of crimes against "Heritage." The strong feelings caused by attacks against heritage have given rise to a realization resulting in acknowledgement of the notion of "crimes against culture" and a will to act (Mainetti 2014: 151-182).

In this way, the International Criminal Court (ICC), on September 27, 2016, rendered a historic guilty verdict in the case of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, the Malian djihadist who admitted to have destroyed protected mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012 (the mausoleums were listed as part of World Heritage). The perpetrator was handed a sentence of 9 years in prison, along with a demand for compensation in the sum of 2.7 million Euros (August 2017). Crimes against culture can henceforth be compared to "war crimes." This marks the end of acting with impunity with regard to cultural property.

The culture-killing attacks put cultural heritage at the heart of international opinion, both in terms of institutional discourse and the media and cyberspace. This worldwide attention sparked a will to act, in concrete fashion, on an international scale beginning with initiatives from a variety of backgrounds, as, for example, the Abou Dhabi Declaration.

The international community, through the UN, envisioned taking action in terms of the legal framework. On February 12, 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution which called for the protection and defense of cultural Heritage against pillaging, trafficking and destruction in all conflict zones. It is resolution 2-199, presented by France and Italy and adopted unanimously. It encourages member states to propose lists of groups involved in mischief against heritage inventories and cultural property. The Council asked them as well to develop standards to regulate the importing and exporting of such goods, including a "certificate of origin" and to create units which will specialize in this struggle. The Council gave a call to strengthen international cooperation, with the assistance of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Interpol and UNESCO.

The Council stated that an attack on cultural or religious heritage sites "could constitute, in some circumstances, a war crime," and specified that the "perpetrators of such attacks should be prosecuted." Islamic terrorists are not satisfied with destroying cultural heritage. They have organized a clandestine trade in cultural property and their clients, paradoxically, are essentially located in the West. On the other hand, the European Union has not stood idly by. The action plan of the European Commission, intended to strengthen the fight against the financing of terrorism, has included recently a fight against illegal imports of cultural property. On July 13, 2017, a draft regulation dealing with the importation of cultural property into the European Union's territory was submitted to the Council for the European Union and to the European Parliament. The goal is to provide a global framework to deal with this problem, but also to propose a new definition of cultural property. As was said by Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner of Economic and Financial Affairs for Taxation and the Customs Union, it is a matter of giving the customs authorities the means to close the market of the European Union against the entry of such goods. For its part, France has included in the law* Law no 2016-925 of July 7, 2016 relative to the freedom of creation, architecture and heritage. several measures specifically destined to fight against the international trafficking of pieces of art and to facilitate their being protected.

The European proposal came along a few days after the members of the "G20" in Hamburg had called on states to fight against the financing of terrorism, especially pillaging and the contraband in antiquities. The European Commission, in addition, decided that 2018 would be the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

Of course, UNESCO, while often criticized for its impotence, cannot do everything. The states have to second its efforts. A work of diplomacy needs to be undertaken. Two recent developments are worthy of note. Following the destruction and pillaging of Iraqi cultural heritage in the 2003 war, the United States finally decided, in 2009, to ratify the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the case of an armed conflict.*As of 2018, only 127 states are signatories (out of 193). We know that the Hague Convention was completed in 1999 (entering into force in 2004), by a second protocol which takes into account non-international conflicts and which regulates more precisely the notion of "imperative military necessity" and the provision for "strengthened protection" of the most precious cultural property. It seeks to oblige signatories to charge and prosecute those who commit serious attacks on cultural property in times of armed conflict. All the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council refused to sign it (only 69 countries did sign the document). In 2017, France decided to take that step.

3/ Protecting, identifying and reconciling

The missions of UNESCO could be thus summarized. But what is the real story?

One example is worthy of note, in light of a very recent news item about ex-Yugoslavia. We know that the bridge of Mostar, which has united the two sections of this city of Bosnia-Herzegovina (and thus the Croatian and Bosnian communities) since the XVth century, was destroyed on purpose in 1993, when Yugoslavia imploded. With assistance from the World Bank, UNESCO began a program to rebuild this bridge, which had taken on symbolic value.* Five countries took part in the financing (Croatia, France, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey) but also the European Council Development Bank. The construction was completed in 2004. One year later, the city and its reconstituted bridge were listed as part of UNESCO's World Heritage. Were people then satisfied? What healing effect did this act of heritagization have? Did the local geopolitical situation return to normal?

Subject to an in-depth study, one might say that the bridge did not break down the walls in people's heads. The two communities continue to disregard each other. "In Mostar, a bridge across the ethnic abyss," read the newspaper Liberation on November 7, 2003. This example, among others, allows us to better verify that a heritage distinction, however prestigious, is not bandage enough to cover the wounds of history. It perhaps, in fact, had the reverse effect: it concretized the memory among the Croats.

November 29, 2017, the world witnessed, first hand, the suicide of Slobodan Praljak, a former Croatian officer sentenced to twenty years of prison for war crimes by the International Tribunal at the Hague. It was he who, it seems, had the idea of destroying the Mostar bridge. The reaction of Andrej Plenkovic, the Croatian prime minister, deeply shocked Europeans: for him, it was a "profound moral injustice." Croatian public opinion seems to stand by this appraisal, if the many demonstrations triggered by the event are any indication. A peculiar denial in the area of revisionism. In 2004, at the moment when the new bridge was being inaugurated, Praljak declared: "It's just an old bridge."

It is interesting to refer to the speech by Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO, on the occasion of the presentation on the follow-up to the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage made before the 58th United Nations General Assembly (October 31, 2003). He spoke to give an update on the United Nations Year (2002) for Cultural Heritage. He praised "the universality of human ingenuity in its creations." In part II ("Dialogue, Reconciliation and Responsibility"), he explained that the third objective of this Year had been to "show how much cultural heritage is a crucial element for the establishment of a lasting peace" and he recalled that UNESCO was increasingly stepping into post-conflict settings in order to, in his words, "enable populations torn apart by conflicts to regain a common cultural identity, laying the foundations for rapprochement and reconciliation indispensable to the building of a common future." In this speech, he welcomed "the newly adopted UNESCO Declaration on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, which the states had asked UNESCO to draft following the intentional destruction of the Bamyan Bouddhas." The 1954 Hague Convention, in fact, deals only with the protection of cultural property in the case of armed conflict. "It was, therefore, also urgently necessary to have an instrument which could serve as a moral and ethical reference for the protection of cultural heritage in times of peace."

On June 6, 2002, at the meeting dealing with UNESCO's actions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he gave a comforting speech entitled: "The rebuilding of the Mostar bridge, a symbol of the intercommunity dialogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina." After listing the bridge as part of World Heritage, one can read on the UNESCO website: "The rebuilt bridge and the old city of Mostar are a symbol of international cooperation and of the co-existence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities." The unbelievable reactions to the suicide of the Croatian officer show just how far the distance is from the speech to the reality in real life. One can only wonder about the belief in the preventive and restorative virtues of UNESCO's anointing of heritage. The official reaction among the people in Croatia also testifies to the difficulty of the European Union (of which Croatia is a member) to incorporate European values.

This quest for universality and for reconciliation that the international community has entrusted to heritage can be counterproductive. The question of restoring cultural property which has been misappropriated shows well what is at stake. It is an ancient demand which is made of the international community, but more particularly of Europe and of France because of their colonial history (Cuno 2010).

In a speech delivered on Tuesday November 28, 2017 at the University of Ouagadougou, the president of the French Republic again proposed this idea. After having stigmatized "the crimes of European colonization," Emmanuel Macron brought up the question of "restoring African heritage."

The first remedy is culture, in this matter. I find unacceptable that a major portion of the cultural heritage of many African countries is in France.

There are historical reasons for this, but there is no justification which is sound, enduring and unquestionable. African heritage cannot be simply in private collections and in the museums of Europe. African heritage has to be highlighted in Paris but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou; that will be one of my priorities.

It is my hope that in five years from now conditions will be right for the temporary or definitive restoration of African heritage to Africa.

The intent to restore justice once denied may seem generous and necessary. It is based on the idea that cultural diplomacy can redress the links which colonialism changed profoundly and can restore, by means of cultural property, their history and their dignity to peoples who were formerly colonized. As if it were a question of granting them a right of presence in the world heritage offer. And yet, is there not a risk of violating this value of universality which we are trying to defend by re-nationalizing heritage? Who can ensure that heritage which has thus been restored will not become an object of instrumentalization which will benefit the cause of identity or simply of economy or of tourism (Benhamou 2010: 113-130)?

Of course, the main risk will be the multiplication of "political" claims and restorations. This was the case on November 12, 2010 when President Nicolas Sarkozy gave back 297 manuscripts seized by the French fleet in Korea in 1866. In the same way, Maori heads were returned to New Zealand, an act which led France's National Assembly to change the law, in May 2010, in order to create a commission whose mandate would be to downgrade certain inalienable works. Will geopolitical interests be prized at the expense of conserving non-transferable collections and regulations? This is the new challenge for which we must prepare ourselves, one which will necessitate our reflection.


Terrorism which destroys culture, such as that displayed at the outset of this millennium, has had a paradoxical effect: never has the international community been so mobilized by the conscious challenge of the importance of heritage as a geopolitical factor.

For 45 years, people have spoken of "world heritage," and UNESCO has been a focal point in the process of recognizing heritage. Now it is a matter of concerning ourselves with and analyzing the globalization of the heritage phenomenon through the appearance of a wide variety of actors and situations which pursue rationales of identity affirmation capable of fueling identity claims. Instrumentalized by politics, communities and pressure groups, heritage is the pool where the regressive and conflictual fixation on what used to be is nurtured. It is the "Jerusalem syndrome." Such is the ontological reversibility of heritage, so reminiscent of the persona of Janus.

We need to find new ways of understanding in order to try to grasp a situation which is both twofold and paradoxical, where heritage hatred has made an appearance at the very moment when restoration of heritage as a "right," an element of cultural distinction and community enhancement, chooses, for example, the road where restoration becomes a demand. This may be another option for subverting the foundations of the concept of universalism which has prevailed until now through UNESCO.


Barkan, Elazar. "Réparer: une nouvelle morale internationale." In Témoins de l'histoire. Recueil de textes et documents relatifs au retour des objets culturels, Paris, Éditions de l'UNESCO, 2011.

Belot, Robert, Woo Bong and Jung Sook Bae (dir.). Corée-France. Regards croisés sur deux sociétés face à l'occupation étrangère. Belfort, Presses de l'UTBM, 2013.

Benhamou, Françoise, "L'inscription au patrimoine mondial de l'humanité. La force d'un langage à l'appui d'une promesse de développement." Revue Tiers Monde, 2010, vol. 2, no 202, pp. 113-130.

Bories, Clémentine. Les bombardements serbes sur la vieille ville de Dubrovnik. La protection internationale des biens culturels. Paris, Pedone, 2005.

Brossard, Yves and Jonathan Vidal. L'éclatement de la Yougoslavie de Tito (1980-1995). Saint-Nicolas (Québec) and Paris, Presses de l'Université Laval and L'Harmattan, 2001.

Chaslin, François. Une haine monumentale. Essai sur la destruction des villes en ex-Yougoslavie. Paris, Descartes & Cie, 1997.

Cœuré, Sophie. La mémoire spoliée. Les archives des Français, butin de guerre nazi puis soviétique. Paris, Éditions Payot & Rivages, 2007.

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010.

Goody, Jack. Le vol de l'histoire. Comment l'Europe a imposé le récit de son passé au reste du monde. Paris, Gallimard, 2010.

Hartog, François. Croire en l'histoire. Paris, Champs Histoire, 2016.

Hershkovitch, Corinne and Didier Rykner. La restitution des œuvres d'art. Solutions et impasses. Paris, Hazan, 2011.

Hoffman, Barbara T. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Jungius, Martin. Un vol organisé. L'État français et la spoliation des biens juifs, 1940-1944. Paris, Tallandier, 2012.

Mainetti, Vittorio. "De Nuremberg à La Haye: l'émergence des crimes contre la culture et la pratique des tribunaux internationaux." In Vincent Négri (dir.), Le patrimoine culturel, cible des conflits armés, Bruxelles, Bruylant, 2014, pp.151-182.

Minard, Adrien. Bouzloudja. Crépuscule d'une utopie. Paris, éditions B2, 2018.

Musée d'Ethnographie de Neuchâtel (MEN). "Objets trouvés des paradis perdus. À propos de la mission Dakar-Djibouti." Collections passion, 1982, pp. 69-100.

Perrin, Jean-Pierre. Menaces sur la mémoire de l'Humanité. Sites en péril, de l'Afghanistan à la Syrie. Paris, Hoëbeke, 2016.

Rioux, Jean-Pierre. La France perd sa mémoire. Comment un pays démissionne de son histoire. Paris, Perrin, 2006.

Stamatoudi, Irini A. Cultural Property Law and Restitution: A Commentary to International Conventions and European Union Law. Cheltenham (R.-U.), Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd., 2011.

Tratnjek, Bénédicte. "Le paysage-spectacle dans la guerre: l'urbicide, une mise en scène de la haine dans la ville." Secondes journées doctorales en Paysage, Blois, France, on line, Archive ouverte en Sciences de l'Homme et de la Société (HALSHS-00650729), 2009.

UNESCO. Le patrimoine culturel dans le Sud-Est européen. Albanie. Rapport de mission 26 avril-7 mai 2004. Series "Le patrimoine culturel dans le Sud-Est européen." No 3, on line (, 2014.

Veschambre, Vincent. Traces et mémoires urbaines. Enjeux sociaux de la patrimonialisation et de la démolition. Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008.

Veyne, Paul. Palmyre. L'irremplaçable trésor. Paris, Albin Michel, 2015./