Cultural heritage sites Nations set to approve heritage protection fund

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The remains of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra after it was destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria play

The remains of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra after it was destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria

(AFP/File)

Representatives of around 40 countries are expected to approve on Saturday establishing a fund to protect heritage sites in conflict-ravaged areas and a network of safe havens for endangered artworks.

From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan to Iraq, jihadists have targeted priceless cultural heritage sites that they deem un-Islamic.

The world watched in dismay as Islamic State group extremists systematically destroyed monuments in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra which they seized in 2015.

In Iraq, videos showed IS using bulldozers and explosives to destroy Nimrud, a jewel of the Assyrian empire south of Mosul, and ransacking pre-Islamic treasures in Mosul's museum.

French ex-culture minister Jack Lang, who heads the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe, said the heritage protection fund and safe haven network would be included in a declaration at the end of the Abu Dhabi conference.

A draft of the so-called Abu Dhabi Declaration, still being discussed by the participants at the two-day UNESCO-backed meeting, did not mention a value for the proposed fund.

But delegates have spoken of a $100 million target.

France, which along with the United Arab Emirates is spearheading the initiative, said it would contribute around $30 million (28 million euros).

Iraqi troops point out the destruction caused by the Islamic State group at the archaeological site of Nimrud play

Iraqi troops point out the destruction caused by the Islamic State group at the archaeological site of Nimrud

(AFP/File)

Other states, including the Gulf Arab monarchies and China, have shown a willingness to contribute to the fund which would be based in Geneva, but without specifying amounts.

The fund aims to safeguard cultural heritage endangered by conflicts, finance preventive and emergency operations, combat the illicit trafficking of artefacts and help restore damaged cultural property, based on a draft declaration yet to be finalised.

Participants hope the international network of refuge zones under discussion will be used to temporarily store cultural property endangered by conflicts or extremism.

'Last option'

But with sovereignty a sensitive issue, such assets would only be moved out of a concerned country after a request by its government, according to a source taking part in the discussions.

Art treasures should first be moved to a safe place within the country itself. Moving them to a neighbouring country would be a second option while sending them elsewhere would be a last resort.

Some countries, including Egypt, have expressed reservations about the creation of safe havens, a delegate told AFP.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told participants that this should be a "last option" and there should be "guarantees for the safe return" of cultural property to the country of origin.

Greece has long sought the return from Britain of ancient sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens but were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin two centuries ago.

Participants at the conference will call on the UN Security Council to support the initiative, according to the draft declaration.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will oversee the safeguarding operations.

French President Francois Hollande, who arrived in Abu Dhabi on Friday, will close the conference alongside Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in the presence of around a dozen leaders including the presidents of Mali and Afghanistan.

Hollande on Saturday visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is now expected to open in 2017 after much delay.

He was accompanied during his tour of the seaside museum by its French architect Jean Nouvel.

The international government representatives as well as public and private institutions at the conference have been debating since Friday how to preserve heritage and treasured works of art.

The meeting coincided with an announcement by Swiss authorities that they had seized cultural relics looted from Palmyra, Libya and Yemen that were being stored in Geneva's free ports.

Participants from Switzerland on Saturday shared the country's experiences in offering safe haven to art works during times of conflict, providing examples as old as the Spanish civil war.

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