THE BLOG
12/03/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

Saving Culture Is Essential for Building Peace

Mohamed is a young Iraqi boy. Since August, he has lived in a camp for internally displaced persons near Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He arrived there after fleeing from Mosul just before the onslaught of radical extremists. This is where I met him last month, as I discussed with his father the school that UNESCO is building for Mohamed and his friends.

The camp is home today to over 600 families, mostly Sunnis, Shabak, Shiites and Kaka'i. Their story reflects the existential threat now facing Iraq. This is a threat to the millennial history of the country and its unique cultural and religious wealth. Iraq is experiencing a deep humanitarian crisis - it is also suffering from cultural cleansing, an attempt to erase the diversity which is the DNA of its society.

We need to understand clearly the struggle underway in Iraq. The violence of radical extremists testifies to a deliberate strategy to destroy everything that can sustain diversity, critical thinking and freedom of opinion -- schools, teachers, journalists, along with cultural minorities and heritage. Whatever doesn't fit their sectarian vision of the world is targeted for destruction.

This is the definition of totalitarianism, and we know its terrible signs from Europe's history. Today, in Mosul, the homes of 'enemy others' are being singled out, one by one. This cultural cleansing is undertaken by radical extremists who wield absolute contempt for human rights and inflict appalling violence against those in their way - bent on destroying the rich diversity of Iraqi heritage and society.

In areas under their control, minority populations are being systematically persecuted and their identities denied. We see such persecution and attacks against vulnerable Christian, Turkmen and Yazidi, and other communities, and their cultural and religious heritage, including churches, shrines, Jewish heritage and monuments. Irreplaceable landmarks are intentionally destroyed, reducing thousands of years of history to rubble. Ancient archaeological sites are being looted, to fuel the underground market for illicit goods and finance further extremism. In this context, protecting cultural heritage is more than a cultural emergency - it is a political and security imperative.

In Baghdad, speaking with the Iraqi President, Fuad Masum, and Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, I said this struggle cannot be won by weapons alone. Both the President and the Prime Minister stressed the need for Iraqis to learn to live together again.

To counter extremism and prepare the ground for reconciliation in the future, we must also safeguard Iraq's heritage of diversity and tolerance. We cannot let this be destroyed, because it will perpetuate a cycle of hatred and violence and weaken the ground for reconciliation. This why new peacebuilding strategies are needed, to respond to new threats of persecution based on identity or religion, intentional attacks against cultural heritage and sectarian indoctrination.

Saving culture is part of the answer. We need to protect our past to build a better future. This is why UNESCO is helping Iraqi authorities to safeguard sites and protect cultural diversity, training conservation experts, monitoring damage and ringing alarm bells about illicit trafficking. This is why we meet regularly with heritage experts, government bodies, customs authorities, law enforcement agencies, museums and auction houses, and why we are mobilizing civil society and the media. Indeed, on Wednesday this week, we gathered the international community at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris to take stock of the situation and look at what we can do together to halt the destruction, in both Iraq and Syria.

This matters for all of us, because cultural cleansing is an attack against the humanity we all share.

After meeting Mohamed in the IDP camp, I drove to the Erbil Citadel. This fortified settlement dates back 6000 years and is situated on an imposing hill above the city, created by countless generations of women and men, living and rebuilding on the same spot.

This year, the Citadel was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and I was there to present in person the inscription certificate to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani.

I went to Erbil, to stand with the people of Iraq, to defend their unique heritage and diversity and to say that this matters - not just for Iraq's future but for all women and men. We must defend the idea of a shared humanity wherever it is challenged. This is our struggle.