Urgent calls to protect Afghan cultural workers and safeguard heritage - Museums Association

Urgent calls to protect Afghan cultural workers and safeguard heritage

Heritage professionals express fears for colleagues in the country
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, pictured in 2013
The entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, pictured in 2013 Masoud Akbari, Wikimedia Commons

The international heritage community has called for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage workers, sites and treasures to be protected as the Taliban seizes power.

In a statement last week, Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay called for “the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting”.

Unesco said it is closely following the situation on the ground and is committed to “exercising all possible efforts to safeguard the invaluable cultural heritage of Afghanistan”.

Afghanistan's ancient heritage was a target the last time the Taliban were in power. The Buddhas of Bamiyam, two 6th century monuments carved into a cliff in the Bamiyam Valley world heritage site, were blown up in March 2001, while the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was ransacked.

The UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said he had spoken to Unesco about how the UK Government could work with the body on international efforts to protect cultural heritage in Afghanistan.

“We agreed any new regime must respect existing commitments to preserve heritage and safeguard the full diversity of Afghan culture,” he said.

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Unesco has also underlined “the need for a safe environment for the ongoing work of the country’s cultural heritage professionals and artists, who play a central role for Afghanistan’s national cohesion and social fabric”. 

There are fears for the safety of cultural heritage workers in the country. The president of the International Council for Museums (Icom), Alberto Garlandini, warned last week that there is “a very real risk to the personal safety of Afghan heritage experts, men and women who have dedicated their lives to preserving their nation's treasures”.

He also said that the lack of functional security meant robberies and looting at heritage sites are “a very real danger”. Icom has published a list of artefact categories that may be under threat.

Karima Bennoune, UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, has urged states to provide safe passage and visas for artists and defenders of cultural and women’s rights, who are now at risk.

She also implored cultural and educational institutions everywhere to extend invitations to Afghan artists, cultural workers and students, especially women and members of minorities, to enable them to continue their work in safety.

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“It is deplorable that the world has abandoned Afghanistan to a fundamentalist group like the Taliban whose catastrophic human rights record, including practice of gender apartheid, use of cruel punishments and systematic destruction of cultural heritage, when in power, is well documented,” said Bennoune.

“Protecting Afghan lives and rights must be the top priority. Efforts must also be made to ensure the safety of all forms of culture and cultural heritage which are essential for enjoyment of those rights, and to protect those who defend it on the frontlines.

“All governments and the international community must act with urgency today to prevent a massive human rights and cultural disaster in Afghanistan.”

Bennoune’s statement was endorsed by other special rapporteurs on the UN Human Rights Council.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “We are very concerned with what is happening in Afghanistan and deeply saddened by some of the news reports. We remain strongly supportive and ready to help however we possibly can.”

Several cultural organisations in Germany, including Berlin’s Prusssian Cultural Heritage Foundation, this week appealed to the German chancellor Angela Merkel to “stand up for colleagues in Afghanistan who have worked for years with your support to preserve Afghanistan's cultural heritage”, according to German current affairs website DW.

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Archaeologist Ute Franke, who spent several years working in Afghanistan, told DW that cultural workers in the country were in a precarious situation, and some had already been trying to leave the country before the Taliban seized power after receiving threats.

The director of the National Museum of Afghanistan told the New York Times this week that Taliban officials had assured him that the museum’s collections would be protected, posting armed guards at the site to prevent looting.

But the international heritage community remains sceptical about those assurances; Franke said she had already heard reports of attacks on heritage sites and depots in Bamiyan. Greece’s culture minister Lina Mendoni said “no one, right now, can guarantee the safety” of the collections in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, after a meeting with her former Afghan counterpart this week.

Afghanistan’s rich and diverse heritage includes the Old City of Herat, the two Unesco world heritage sites of the Minaret and archaeological remains of Jam, and the cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley, as well as institutions such as the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Significant archaeological research has been undertaken in the country over the past 20 years in partnership with cultural institutions around the world.

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