Five months after the seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the alerts remain on to prevent a repetition of events such as the tragedy of 2001, when the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley were destroyed. UNESCO works tirelessly to preserve the country’s cultural heritage. The UN body also participates in the elaboration of bilateral agreements so that other countries recover the heritage that was stolen from them, but the journey is difficult.
The Taliban are responsible for one of the worst crimes against culture, the destruction of the giant Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan in 2001. The new Taliban government, which took power in the country last August, committed to respecting and guarding the rich cultural heritage of his country. What guarantees are there now? Have they complied?
Ernesto Ottone, Deputy Director General for Culture at UNESCO, invited to this edition of Escala en Paris, knows the situation in detail: “We are in a slightly different situation compared to the last time the Taliban took power. same authorities that return to the government, what has changed are three things. The first thing is that, during all these democratic years in Afghanistan, the outgoing government ratified all the conventions that it had not ratified until then. That is, the illicit traffic in of conflict, the safeguarding of heritage, intangible heritage. Therefore, the international gaze is focused on respecting these international agreements. The second thing is that, indeed, there have been indications – at least that is the information we have so far with our team that works on the ground – that the destruction that occurred over three years, between 2000 and 2002, has not occurred on the scale that occurred back then, but we are constantly working and checking. Our greatest danger at the moment is the archaeological sites, that is, the control of the archaeological sites.”
It is estimated that some 1,000 pieces deposited in Bamiyan have been stolen since August when the Taliban came to power again. “The exact figures are not known,” Ottone clarifies. “We had a seminar last November, where the director of the National Museum came and could not certify figures for us. There was a lot of theft of technical material in the first days. The work we have been doing For 18 years, UNESCO has been supported and financially supported by many countries such as Germany, Italy, South Korea, mainly,” he says.
Ernesto Ottone explains that lower theft figures are recorded in the two main museums. He emphasizes that the difficult control of the archaeological sites, where the specialists are discovering the pieces and they are not registered, weakens them. “When a piece is registered, one has the resource of Interpol, the national customs service that can monitor it, and UNESCO works with specialized agencies,” he explains.
“In these last four months, there has been a very strong call for the market not to acquire pieces from Afghanistan, without the necessary proof of origin. That is, if there are pieces that were taken out of the country in the past, we have a record. Today today we are making a call so that parts from Afghanistan are not acquired in the market, neither formally, and of course much less informally, which is illegal”, he specifies.
The UNESCO staff present in Afghanistan, before the arrival of the Taliban, had to withdraw to Pakistan. That complicates things a lot because also “the pandemic is added to us.”
“The political change that occurred in the Afghan territory, plus the pandemic, which had already severely damaged the public institutions that safeguard heritage, have affected, above all, the monitoring of control. The good thing is that in the last three months our teams They have returned to the field, national teams of experts. The big problem we have is access,” he says.
Ernesto Ottone highlights the example of the project carried out jointly with Alif, an international agency that works with UNESCO, in the recovery of the Djam (or Jam) minaret. Access is impossible since the Taliban have cut off the route. Unesco specialists had to do everything with drones or monitors. Today the strategic places are guarded. “The Taliban have put security in place so that unauthorized persons do not enter, but we have very little information,” underlines the UNESCO representative.
Regarding the limitations they encounter to carry out their work and the situation of the great UNESCO cultural center that was about to open when the Taliban took power, the guest of Escala en Paris specifies that it is an information center, a space that it was to be handed over to the Afghan community.
“It was also the museum where part of the pieces of what remained of the Buddhas that were destroyed in 2001 were going to be restored. The cultural center was going to be inaugurated two weeks after the change of government. For us it was a shock of cold water very large. The physical space is ready, but it is empty. Today what has been tried to do is to ensure that the pieces that were going to be in that space are protected. Our local specialists assure us that they are protected. That gives us a certain tranquility. But, indeed, both the country that invested and UNESCO do not want that space to be used for other purposes. It cannot be transformed into a place of worship. We are talking about a space of 8,000 square meters, in a country that has 5 museums in total,” he adds.
The work of restitution of cultural property recently took a big step when France returned to Benin some 26 works looted by colonial troops in the 19th century. Also Senegal and Ivory Coast will receive pieces. They are the recent results of a very old discussion in UNESCO.
Ernesto Ottone specifies that it is necessary to refer to the 1970 convention on the return of art objects: “every object that can be proven to have been taken out of a country must be returned; 141 countries out of 193 have ratified this convention”.
“The problem we have about the colonial era in Latin America is that it is not covered by any normative instrument. This discussion, today, is very active in Latin America, in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, among others. Today These are bilateral agreements, so two problems arise: one is the national legislation that is very divergent between one country and another – some do not allow the heritage that is included in the heritage of that country to be returned because it would be like taking a part of the country-, and the other countries say that any object that has left that country, for example, pre-Columbian Mexico, has to be returned automatically. So we have a clash of laws.”
“Today what we are doing is looking for a way to mediate between countries that have divergent legislation. This work is going to be very long and we have to be very honest: there is a change because there was a change in society. Today in Today a part of civil society recognizes that this object is not only economic value but also identity value. And that is what we are studying,” he concludes.