The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has said that it is taking measures as best it can, to try and protect some of Ukraine’s priceless heritage from destruction in the face of the Russian invasion, noting that the international community also has a duty to help protect and preserve the country’s historic buildings, and other treasures.
Heritage for peace
Although the most pressing priority is the protection of civilian life as the Russian advance continues, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, said in a statement that cultural heritage “must be safeguarded as a testimony of the past, but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve”.
The agency is in regular contact with all relevant institutions, as well as with Ukrainian cultural professionals, to assess the situation and to reinforce the protection of cultural properties.
Designated for protection
“The first challenge is to mark cultural heritage sites and monuments, and recall their special status as protected areas under international law”, Ms. Azoulay continued.
According to the press release, the agency is in contact with Ukrainian authorities to mark cultural sites and monuments with the distinctive “Blue Shield” emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to avoid deliberate or accidental damages.
World Heritage List
Properties inscribed on World Heritage list, such as Kyiv’s Saint-Sophia Cathedral and Related Monastic Buildings, and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, are considered a priority.
The marking process started last weekend at the site of L’viv’s Historic City Centre, in western Ukraine, where many have fled to following the fighting further east.
Respect international humanitarian law
At the beginning of the conflict the UN cultural agency had called for respect of international humanitarian law – notably the 1954 Hague Convention, and its two Protocols, “to ensure the prevention of damage to cultural heritage in all its forms”.
This includes the obligations under Security Council Resolution 2222 on the protection of journalists, media professionals and associated personnel in situations of conflict, to promote free, independent and impartial media as one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, and which can contribute to the protection of civilians.
The looting and destruction of cultural heritage has been a feature of armed conflict, UNESCO noted, for almost as long as the history of warfare itself.
Monitoring the damage
In partnership with the UN Institute for Training and Research, UNITAR, UNESCO is also analysing satellite imagery for priority sites, which are endangered or already impacted, in order to assess damage.
“As of today, a dozen priority sites are already covered by this monitoring system, including World Heritage Sites”, said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Furthermore, the agency has also contacted civil society specialists, “living heritage” professionals and practitioners, regarding the impact of the crisis on the situation of artists and cultural institutions.
Supporting the custodians of heritage
UNESCO is meeting on Wednesday and Thursday with Ukrainian cultural professionals, including World Heritage Site managers and museum directors, in order to determine what technical or financial assistance can be offered.
To address urgent needs, UNESCO will then mobilize international partners during an emergency response coordination meeting with UNITAR, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Blue Shield International, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and ALIPH, among others.