Launch of the International Council of Museums' Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk

Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City
September 25, 2013

Thank you. I’d like to thank our host Dr. Hans-Martin Hinz, President of the International Council of Museums, as well as Tom Campbell and Emily Rafferty, Director and President of the Metropolitan respectively, for making this important event possible.

Let me also extend my acknowledgement and appreciation to all the members of UN Missions, consulate officials, curators, preservationists, and other supporters who stand here in support of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage.

Our ties with the Museum are strong. Experts from the Met are participating with the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation projects in Libya and Sri Lanka. They are teaching at the U.S.-supported Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, Iraq. And the State Department collaborated with the Met on the opening of the Islamic art galleries two years ago.

I am looking forward to seeing these galleries, and I am delighted to stand here today, in this capacity. I grew up on Long Island, and as my aunt in the audience will attest, my mother, a teacher, used to bring the five of us kids here all the time. I like to think that our cultural education was foremost in her mind, but I know now she was also just trying to get us out of the house.

Either way, I have so many fond memories of this museum. To me, returning here for this purpose is very meaningful. It is like a homecoming.

As the Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. State Department, my efforts are directed towards the complicated and tragic humanitarian challenges in the region. But I join with all those who recognize that preserving Syria’s cultural heritage – and taking steps now – is a critical step towards reconstruction, reconciliation, and building civil society.

That’s why I am honored to talk today about our collective need to preserve and protect Syria’s cultural heritage, to outline the U.S. Government’s efforts to support that goal, and to announce the launch of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, developed by ICOM with the support of the Department’s Cultural Heritage Center.

This list illustrates categories of objects at risk, so that law enforcement personnel, art dealers, and collectors can become aware of the types of plundered artifacts that may be circulating illegally on the antiquities market.

The Red List – which joins earlier ones, as you mentioned, for Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan – has proved to be a very effective way to enlist the efforts of the international community. For example, customs inspectors – alerted to the situation of looting in Afghanistan by the Red List – recovered items stolen from that country. The Department of Homeland Security returned those objects to the people of Afghanistan just last week. And allow me, at this point, to thank ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement part of the Department of Homeland Security, and Interpol (inaudible), for the role that they play in this common endeavor.

I think it’s helpful to take a moment to appreciate the depth and breadth of Syria’s cultural heritage – and the magnitude of the danger it faces. And having participated earlier today in meetings on the crisis right now, and headed back that way shortly, to go back, it’s in some ways for me, a respite to stop and think about the cultural heritage in Syria.

Syria is home to some of the richest treasures of the ancient world: the remains of immense Bronze and Iron Age cities; extensive Greek and Roman metropolises; well-preserved rural Byzantine towns; some of the world’s most spectacular medieval castles; and masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture. Expressions of Syrian culture from all of these eras can be seen in the galleries upstairs.

This past spring, satellite images of the Roman city of Apamea in western Syria showed that looters ruthlessly and systematically pillaged a columned street that was once built by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Department of State analysts estimate that between July 2011 and December 2012, they damaged an area larger than, not just one football field, but 220 football fields.

Photographs also show the destruction of the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque, which dates back to 1090 A.D. and which was the oldest surviving part of the building. Social media sources indicate that civil society is also working to safeguard the things that matter to Syrians inside Syria. A small-scale, emergency cultural heritage protection effort was recently undertaken in the preserved part of the building. The U.S. Government commends these efforts.

The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were – in better times – a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life – a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future.

Today, with the release of the Red List, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.

We call on the international community to be vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from acquiring such objects. We also ask them to coordinate relevant law enforcement activities, and to make use of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk – which we are launching today.

At the same time, we continue to call on all parties to the conflict in Syria to respect cultural property, such as archaeological sites, historic buildings, monuments, and collections of objects, in accordance with relevant instruments of international humanitarian law.

We owe this to the Syrian people who are being stripped of their cultural identity, and to the world at large that respects, admires, and studies this heritage.

When we help protect heritage sites or preserve cultural objects throughout the world, we also support a nation’s efforts to restore its national identity. Citizens of all ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds, and economic stations can feel the pride and sense of national unity that comes with that.

We are also supporting the potential rebirth of an economy which, at one time, accounted for 12 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year. In fact, 11 percent of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, and shopkeepers.

My area of expertise is humanitarian response, not cultural preservation. But accompanying me today are several key members of the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs – or ECA – who stand ready to provide detailed information.

You are encouraged to reach out to them for any information about the U.S. Government’s efforts, through our embassies and consulates and diplomatic missions, and through our partnerships with foreign governments, and private and non-governmental organizations, to preserve and protect one of the world’s most precious collections of cultural heritage.

They can tell you more about other ways in which the State Department exercises its leadership role in preserving cultural heritage worldwide, activities grounded on U.S. respect for diverse cultures and their tangible expressions in objects, buildings, and monuments.

They can provide details about our partnerships on many preservation projects in the region with partners that include the World Monuments Fund – represented today by our next speaker, WMF President Bonnie Burnham.

They can also talk about how they developed an inventory of important Syrian cultural heritage sites and their geographic coordinates – which you will be able to see later on a project map -. It shows that more than 90 percent of the sites are inside areas of conflict and displacement.

Let me close by saying: In 2008, I traveled to Damascus as part of a delegation from the International Rescue Committee. I made time to visit a breathtaking collection at the National Museum of Damascus. The Damascus I visited was a peaceful, diverse city with a history evident in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, and the holy Qur’an. Syrians were then hosts to Iraqi refugees, and we thanked Syrian authorities for their country’s generosity.

I, for one, would like to return to Syria and again visit a peaceful, diverse Damascus and to see Damascus stand as a beacon to a post-conflict Syria. What better time than now – with so many people gathered here at the opening meetings of the UN General Assembly, who represent educational, cultural, and humanitarian affairs – to take decisive steps towards preserving Syria’s cultural heritage?

Thank you for all that you do – and for all that you will continue to do – to support this important goal.