Preserving our Culture

Posted By Varun Aery, Apr 12, 2015

As fundamentalism and extremism rears its ugly head, our communities are subject to greater danger. Instead of expressing their opinions peacefully via a civic debate, these radical groups subject innocent people to the worst forms of terror. One of those forms involves attacks on cultural treasures and historical sites. This month, militants stormed into the Bardo Museum, killing 21 tourists and one local Tunisian.[1] The museum is famous for housing one of the most impressive collections of Roman mosaics.[2] In response to the attack, thousands of Tunis demonstrators chanted “Tunisia is free! Terrorism out!” The Tunisian President remarked that the people of Tunisia remain opposed to gross forms of violence and that “the whole nation stands as one.”[3]

The destruction of cultural artifacts in countries like Iraq, left thousands of people feeling something they might not have anticipated –pain. It is not as if destroying sculptures or torching paintings is worse than the killing of innocent lives. Admittedly, extremist violence against people is far worse. However, that does not mean that the destruction of cultural heritage is insignificant.

UNESCO launched the Unite4Heritage campaign which “builds support for the protection of heritage in areas where it is threatened by extremists.”[4] The campaign recognizes several legally binding instruments protecting culture, “the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict, the Convention against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, and the World Heritage Convention.”[5] We should also recognize the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Article 15 observes that member states “recognize the right of everyone [to] take part in cultural life; to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications; to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”[6] The first provision is the most relevant for our discussion.

Per Article 15, states have an obligation to defend our intimate relationship with artists from attempts to erase our cultural forums. According to the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), under the obligation to protect cultural life, states must protect culture from third-parties, such as extremists. [7] When extremists destroy our cultural resources they effectively eliminate our right to participate in cultural life. As the CESCR noted, “The full promotion of and respect for cultural rights is essential for the maintenance of human dignity and positive social interaction between individuals and communities in a diverse and multicultural world.” [8]

Places, such as museums, theaters, and galleries are critical to the development of our communities and our individual selves. These are places where love and friendship flourish in the pursuit of knowledge. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, remarked “Cultural sites have universal value –they belong to all and must be protected by all. We are not just talking about stones and buildings. We are talking about values, identities and belonging.”[9] As a dancer, my cultural expression is intrinsically linked to the common soul of those observing. In essence, while performing, I give a part of myself to my audience and, in turn, my audience gives a part of themselves to me. This is why cultural destruction causes so much grievance. All forms of cultural expression breathe passion into our communities and, in response, we exhale a sense of understanding, love, and greater awareness of life. When art is violently desecrated, our values are grossly violated. When artists are silenced, we lose our voice. It is not just that cultural artifacts and historical sites are windows to our past, rather, they foster an intimate nexus among differing societies in the present. Article 15 of the ICESCR, not only recognizes this, but also, compels states to defend our creative consciousness.  

I ask everyone to support the Unite4Heritage campaign,[10] and I ask all artists to keep Performing, Sculpting, Painting, Singing, and Expressing!



[1] BBC, Tunis Bardo Museum Attach: Thousands Join Protest March, (Mar. 29, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32105232.

[2] Mary Beth Sheridan, Tunisia’s Bardo Museum, Attacked by Terrorists, is Home to Amazing Roman Treasures, (Mar. 18, 2015).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/03/18/tunisias-bardo-museum-attacked-by-terrorists-is-home-to-amazing-roman-treasures/.

[3] BBC, supra note 1.

[4] UNESCO, Unite4Heritage, http://www.unite4heritage.org/ (last visited Mar. 29, 2015).

[5] Id.

[6] International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), U.N.GAOR, 21 Sess. Supp. No. 16, U.N. Doc. A/6316, at 50-51 (Dec. 16, 1966).

[7] Comm. on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 21 Right of Everyone to Take Part in Cultural Life, Rep. on its 43rd Sess., Nov. 2-20, 2009, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/GC/21 (Dec. 21, 2009).

[8] Id.

[9] UNESCO, supra note 4.

[10] Id.