Combating extremists by Uniting for Heritage

In the light of the deliberate destruction and looting of cultural heritage by IS in the Middle East, the Honours Academy of Leiden University hosted the conference The Heritage Heistto discuss these disturbing events. The conference was organised in cooperation with the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO and the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development. In the context of this conference two students were invited to the Third Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention that took place in Paris simultaneously. The students wrote a report about their experiences.

The students Natasja van der Heijden and Christian van der Woude participating from Paris via Skype.

Meeting of State Parties

The massive destruction of cultural heritage has increased enormously. IS has knowingly destroyed ancient sites of Nineveh and Nimrud. Now the extremist group is standing at the gates of Syrian World Heritage site Palmyra. These recent destructions and looting of World Heritage sites in the Near East are important reasons for the member states of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to assemble and discuss matters of action.


The Third Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention was held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris from 18 to the 20 May. Important points on the agenda were the adoption of the Draft Operational Guidelines, which were prepared by the Subsidiary Committee and reporting on the current situation in the Middle East concentrating on cultural heritage at risk and on actions taking place to counter the illicit trade in objects looted from these regions. Other items on the agenda were the creation of a fund for the Convention and discussing the recommendations in the Evaluation Report on the 1970 Convention by the Office of Internal Oversight Service of UNESCO (IOS). Not only the endangered heritage in Syria and Iraq was discussed during the meeting but attention was also paid to the heritage at risk in Libya, Mali, Yemen and Nepal.

‘All cultural heritage should be protected’

Interesting to see was that all State Parties shared the idea that they have to work together to fight the illicit trade in cultural objects and stop the destruction of heritage. It was stressed that action should be taken to safeguard all threatened cultural heritage and not only those sites that are on the World Heritage List. On the second day of the meeting countries were given the time to present initiatives they had taken in this matter. The Nordic countries for example have a joint initiative to make use of each other’s experts to be able to stop the import of illicitly obtained cultural goods at their boarders. The Dutch delegation informed the other State Parties about the training they organised called ‘First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis’. The course was attended by heritage professionals from all over the world and was designed to give them the knowledge and skills to safeguard their heritage before, during and after a crisis situation. 

A Ray of Hope

In the fight to protect the world’s cultural heritage a ray of hope emerged when at the World Heritage Site of Bosra in Syria a temporarily seize fire agreement was reached. UNESCO Director-General, Ms Irina Bokova, stated that parties need to refrain from military action that might endanger museums and sites. She mentioned that “the recent developments in Bosra are encouraging and commendable. We need to build on such initiatives to expand protected cultural areas.”

What does UNESCO do?

UNESCO is actively fighting the trafficking of cultural goods on the internet by working in close cooperation with INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums. Furthermore, UNESCO is trying to raise awareness through film and short movies. Next to that they are reaching out to the art market and museums by promoting codes of ethics based on the principles of the 1970 Convention. The organisation also actively informs the police, customs and public authorities. During the meeting it was also stated that UNESCO is now actively monitoring by means of satellite images the cultural heritage in the different conflict zones.


At the meeting UNESCO informed the State Parties on the #Unite4Heritage-campaign. The campaign was initiated to “build support for the protection of heritage where it is threatened by extremists”. The campaign urges us all to post a photo of an artefact or heritage site on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using #Unite4Heritage and mention why it is of importance to you. So grab your camera and get in action to protect the worlds heritage yourselves!


UNESCO site for Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property 

UNESCO statement on Syria