French President of the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe, IMA), Jack Lang speaks during the opening ceremony of a conference gathering officials and experts from around the world gather to discuss forming a global alliance to protect endangered heritage sites on December 2, 2016 in Abu Dhabi. PHOTO: KARIM SAHIB / AFP
Representatives of some 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.
“These two elements will be included in the declaration” adopted at the end of a UNESCO-backed Abu Dhabi conference initiated by France and the United Arab Emirates, said French ex-culture minister and co-organiser Jack Lang.
Lang heads the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe.
The two-day conference reflects growing international alarm over the destruction of ancient artefacts by Islamic State group jihadists.
Among these was Syria’s Palmyra, which IS seized in May 2015.
The world watched in dismay as the jihadists systematically destroyed monuments that once attracted scores of tourists before the Syria conflict erupted in 2011.
In Iraq, videos released in 2015 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.
Extremists have also targeted other priceless cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan and Mali after denouncing them as un-Islamic.
A draft of the so-called Abu Dhabi Declaration, still being discussed by the participants, did not mention a figure on the value of the proposed fund.
However, delegates have spoken of a $100 million target.
France said it would contribute with around $30 million (28 million euros).
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 declaration draft yet to be finalised.
Participants are also discussing setting up an international network of refuge zones where they hope cultural property endangered by conflicts or extremism could be stored temporarily.
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.
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.
The international government representatives as well as public and private institutions have been debating since Friday how to preserve heritage and treasured works of art.
The conference 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.