UNESCO and the question of the restitution of cultural property
The session on ‘Looted art: taking African cultural heritage restitution forward’ that took place during the second edition of the Paris Peace Forum, came at a critical moment, because it highlighted how the restitution of works of art can promote new, stronger relationships between countries. It also echoed the mission of UNESCO – to promote peace and development through culture, education, science and communication – which is unique in the UN system.
Cultural property must be safeguarded, as it embodies the identity and diversity of the peoples of the world. However, due to vicissitudes of history, many African countries have seen their cultural property seized and scattered across the globe. The loss of this heritage has left deep wounds and represents a potential loss of historic memory for future generations.
In recent years, the countries that are in possession of these “ill acquired cultural properties” have faced an increasing number of requests for their return. As a result, new initiatives and cooperation efforts have emerged to respond to this important question. UNESCO believes that these requests must be listened to carefully, particularly as the debate has now reached the public sphere.
The question of the restitution of cultural property is important for UNESCO, and the Organization always had a clear position on it.
As early as 1978, Mr. Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO, launched an appeal “for the restitution of an irreplaceable cultural heritage to those who created it”. This pioneering document states that loss of heritage represents, for dispossessed countries, a loss of memory knowledge. The appeal calls for international cooperation and dialogue on this subject, particularly regarding issues of ethics, sharing, and return.
Cultural property must be safeguarded, as it embodies the identity and diversity of the peoples of the world.
Mr. M’Bow also created the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP). This Committee provides assistance when bilateral negotiations prove ineffective. Several requests for return of cultural property have been successfully solved through this Committee.
These fundamental and pioneering initiatives must be understood within the general framework of the normative texts that have been adopted by UNESCO’s Member States, including those to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict (1954) and against illicit trafficking (1970), as well as those to safeguard World Heritage (1972 Convention), underwater cultural heritage (2001 Convention), intangible cultural heritage (2003 Convention), cultural diversity (2005 Convention ) and museums and collections (2015 Recommendation).
UNESCO, as an international organization, is convinced that the debate around the restitution of cultural property is multifaceted and goes beyond the legal framework.
The international conference “Circulation of Cultural Property and Shared Heritage” organized by UNESCO in 2018 also gathered several of the participants of this Paris Peace Forum panel to discuss these issues.
UNESCO, as an international organization, is convinced that the debate around the restitution of cultural property is multifaceted and goes beyond the legal framework. Cooperation and dialogue at a regional and international level, between states, but also between cultural institutions and international organizations, will no doubt contribute to the development of new international relations in this area. Ethics in the acquisitions of cultural property is also essential. In this regard, inventories are a precondition for countries to protect and better understand their heritage. The creation of new museums to house the returned collections and the capacity building of culture professionals is equally important. New technologies can contribute to improved access and foster the circulation of cultural property.
As the only UN agency with a specific mandate in the field of culture, UNESCO stands ready to assist its Member States in this crucial area.
Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo is Director for Culture and Emergencies at UNESCO since November 2018. The entity for which he is responsible deals with all matters regarding protection of cultural heritage in emergencies situations, restitution and fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objets, protection of underwater cultural heritage, and Museums. He is an architect conservator and town-planner specialized in cultural heritage conservation and management. Before he held the position of Deputy Director of the Division of Heritage and the World Heritage Centre. From September 2013 until October 2016, he was UNESCO Representative in Mali and main responsible for coordinating UNESCO’s actions to rehabilitate Mali’s cultural heritage and ancient manuscripts. It is in this capacity that he has successfully coordinated the reconstruction of the destroyed mausoleums in Timbuktu by violent extremist groups, in close cooperation with MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. Before being posted in Mali, Lazare Eloundou Assomo was the Chief of Unit for Africa at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, where he was in charge of coordinating cooperation between UNESCO and African Member States for all issues related to World Heritage. He is the author of the book “African World Heritage, a remarkable diversity” published by UNESCO in 2012.