The terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL or Daesh, has been engaged in the destruction and theft of some of the world’s most important heritage sites and antiquities, dating back thousands of years.
In late May, ISIL occupied the town of Tadmor, Syria and the huge ruins of “one of the great sites of the ancient world,” the Classical city of Palmyra. As part of its violent rampage throughout Syria and Iraq, ISIL has targeted for demolition sites of religious and cultural significance. Propaganda videos produced by the group depict its followers blowing up an ancient Assyrian palace at Nimrud, smashing statues at the Mosul Museum, and destroying the mosque at Nebi Yunis which housed the Tomb of Jonah, a place sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“[They] are destroying and looting irreplaceable cultural property in order to intimidate and humiliate populations, and looted artifacts have become a significant source of income for terrorist groups,” wrote Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Sheba Crocker in a recent blog post.
“This is not just a cultural tragedy,” said UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova, “it’s also a security issue, with terrorists using the destruction of heritage as a weapon of war, an instrument of propaganda and destabilization, and as a means of financing their operations.”
The United States strongly supports UNSC Resolution 2199, which condemns the wanton destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria. It also reaffirms an existing ban on the sale of Iraqi antiquities illegally removed from the country, and requires all Member States to take additional appropriate steps to prohibit the smuggling of Syrian antiquities. Along these lines, the U.S. State Department recently funded the reissue of the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Cultural Objects at Risk to alert the public to types of antiquities most at risk of smuggling and trafficking, and co-hosted with UNESCO a Round Table discussion on this issue moderated by Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan.
We also call on all UN member nations to start enforcing UNESCO’s 1970 flagship convention aimed at prohibiting the illicit trade in cultural property. 128 of the 195 member states have signed the convention, but only some, like the U.S., Switzerland, and U.K., implement it through national legislation.
“The United States and UNESCO are leading efforts to protect antiquities, monuments and sites that hold universal value for mankind,” wrote Assistant Secretary Crocker. “For both the United States and the UN, preserving diverse cultural heritage is a critical step toward reconstruction, reconciliation, and building civil society.”