Palmyra: Protection of the Cultural Heritage


Palmyra: Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Periods of Armed Conflict

By René Wadlow

    In a May 15, 2015 message to Madame Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, the Association of World Citizens (AWC) highlighted its Appeal for a Humanitarian Ceasefire in and around Palmyra, Syria, a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity site.

    On May 15, there was an intensification of fighting around Palmyra between the forces of ISIS/Daesh and the Syrian Government. A humanitarian ceasefire was an appropriate measure at that time. Now, it seems that the ISIS/Daesh forces have taken control of the city and some of the area around it. Thus, the AWC Appeal must be addressed to the leadership of the ISIS/Daesh, although the AWC has no direct communication avenues to the ISIS/Daesh leadership.

    Palmyra is a rich contribution to the cultural heritage of all the Syrian people, no matter to what political faction they may now belong. Moreover, Palmyra is for all of humanity a moving example of trade routes such as the Silk Road and cultural exchanges through the centuries. For some 400 years, Palmyra was an important outpost of the Roman Empire, a link between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra
                          were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site
                          in 1980. Is ISIS/Daesh going to destroy such a
                          place which stands out as a jewel of history
                          in the Middle East?

The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Is ISIS/Daesh going to destroy this site which stands out as a jewel of history in the Middle East? (C) Encyclopaedia Britannica

    We believe that if ISIS/Daesh wishes to be seen as a valid participant in future negotiations concerning the future of Syria and Iraq, it must show its willingness to respect world law.  The protection of the cultural heritage of humanity is an important element of world law binding on States, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals.

    The AWC works in the tradition of the Roerich Peace Pact and its Banner of Peace for the protection of cultural institutions.

    Early efforts for the protection of educational and cultural institutions were undertaken by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) a Russian and world citizen. Nicholas Roerich had lived through the First World War and the Russian Revolution and saw how armed conflicts can destroy works of art and cultural and educational institutions. For Roerich, such institutions were irreplaceable and their destruction was a permanent loss for all humanity. Thus, he worked for the protection of works of art and institutions of culture in times of armed conflict.  Thus, he envisaged a universally-accepted symbol that could be placed on educational institutions in the way that a red cross had become a widely-recognized symbol to protect medical institutions and medical workers.

    Roerich proposed a “Banner of Peace” − three red circles representing the past, present and future − that could be placed upon institutions and sites of culture and education to protect them in times of conflict.

The Banner of Peace once proposed by
                          World Citizen Nicholas Roerich. The Banner of Peace once proposed by World Citizen Nicholas Roerich.

    Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace.  Henry A. Wallace, then the United States Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President, was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace − the Roerich Peace Pact − signed at the White House on April 15, 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony.  At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an ideal been more needed.  It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity.  It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in additions the unique contributions of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”

    As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways, and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era.  We deplore the loss of libraries of Lou vain and Overdo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Reims.  We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities.  But we do not want to inscribe on these deeps any worlds of hatred.  Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance − rebuilt by human hope.”

    Today, as citizens of the world, we must build upon these pioneer efforts to protect the testimonies of humanity's constant evolution toward beauty, harmony, and peace.

   Prof. René Wadlow is President and  a Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.