Cultural Heritage, Peace and Conflict: Perspectives from Civil Society

By Lorenzo Angelini

Although the existence of international legal frameworks relating to the protection of cultural heritage is not new, in recent years increased attention has been paid to how cultural heritage can be harmed by conflict, both as collateral damage and as a direct target for conflict actors. The destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage can have profound and diverse effects on people and societies, including by weakening the foundations for social cohesion and dialogue – and the motivations for targeting particular sites or practices may be heavily gendered. In addition, cultural heritage can sometimes be used as part of efforts to divide populations, marginalise communities and foster conflict. Conversely, protecting and restoring cultural heritage through processes that protect the rights of minorities and further gender equality can support the existence of a sense of shared belonging and identity across populations, strengthen the resilience of communities, and contribute to sustainable peace.

In the framework of the Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) [1], EPLO organised a policy meeting in early March that brought together 25 civil society experts working on cultural heritage in fragile and conflict-affected areas, and officials from the European Commission (EC) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). The objective of the meeting was to gather input from civil society as part of the drafting process of an EU concept on ‘cultural heritage as a component for peace and security in conflict and crisis zones’.

What follows is a summary of some of the key points and recommendations that were made by the civil society participants.

1. The EU should embrace an open, flexible, fluid, holistic and self-reflective understanding of what constitutes ‘cultural heritage’, and be wary of projecting its assumptions of what does (not) constitute cultural heritage into contexts.

  • There is no universal consensus on what constitutes ‘cultural heritage’; in particular, the cultural heritage of minority groups may not be acknowledged as such by dominant groups and/or the national government. Cultural heritage can take vastly different forms, and it should be understood as an ecosystem rather than a set of distinct elements. It can be complex and messy to understand and navigate, and all tangible cultural heritage also has intangible dimensions.
  • Cultural heritage should be considered as dynamic rather than static. It can find its roots in the ‘deep’ past and/or be a contemporary creation, including as part of the legacy of a recent conflict. It can also be transformed positively by being challenged and contested.
  • Cultural heritage is not necessarily ‘neutral’. It is situated within a wider context of gendered power relations and political, social and economic dynamics. It can be mobilised by actors to affect the context and the people living in and with it.

2. The EU should always put people (particularly the marginalised), their lives and livelihoods at the centre of its approach to cultural heritage, and ensure that its engagements are conflict-sensitive.

  • The EU should consult and engage with local populations (including diverse women, young people and other marginalised groups, taking into account gender, class, religion, ethnicity, (dis)ability, rural/urban divides, etc., and how these may intersect) in order to understand and to base its engagements on their diverse perceptions, lived experiences, needs and priorities.
  • The EU should ensure that it does not put more effort into saving and rebuilding tangible cultural heritage (e.g. monuments) than into protecting people’s lives, supporting their livelihoods, and helping to rebuild their homes and the infrastructure they depend on (including for access to water, transportation, etc.). Protecting cultural heritage loses importance when people cannot support themselves.

3. The EU should promote inclusive (understandings of) cultural heritage and defuse possible toxic uses of cultural heritage, including through education.

  • The EU should support initiatives to educate people on the hybridity and diverse origins of their cultural heritage, deconstructing artificial and selective monocultural narratives of the past, and highlighting how cultural heritage reflects the lived experiences of diverse communities. It is essential for communities to understand how the development of their cultural heritage (and their community’s history) benefited from exchanges with (and the contributions of) other communities.
  • The EU should support the transformation of toxic cultural heritage into cultural heritage that is conducive to peace (when such a transformation is possible), and push back against the use of cultural heritage to foster polarisation, tensions and conflict between communities.

4. The EU should support the initiatives and the ownership of local populations and civil society during peacetime and before, during and after conflict, to safeguard, protect, recover, restore and carry out (long-term) research on their cultural heritage, and to mobilise it for peace.

  • The EU should support in particular locally-led, grassroots civil society organisations (CSOs) that employ people from affected areas, especially diverse women, young people and other marginalised groups (it should especially support multicultural local organisations and teams). The EU should help to train and build the capacity of local populations and CSOs in order to enable them to pursue their own initiatives.

5. The EU should support efforts that bring people together around cultural heritage in order to mobilise it for peace and conflict prevention.

  • The EU should ensure that its efforts to promote the use of cultural heritage for peace are based on how local populations wish to rebuild their lives and not on external framings of what reconciliation ‘should’ involve.
  • The EU should support diverse efforts around cultural heritage that foster the development of interpersonal relationships across communities, as well as common causes that communities can rally behind together. These include initiatives that bring people from different religions together to manage common holy sites and/or to engage in other activities around shared religious heritage, for example through actions to deal with practical issues.

6. The EU should engage with and support diverse actors at the local, national and international levels to safeguard, protect, recover and restore cultural heritage.

  • The EU should encourage its partners to pursue inclusive cultural heritage policies and measures, including with respect to the involvement and position of diverse civil society actors, especially of women, young people and other marginalised groups, at all levels.
  • The EU should support the institutional capacities, infrastructure, policies and legal frameworks of its partners to safeguard, protect, recover and restore cultural heritage, including through training, learning and capacity building measures.

7. The EU should monitor attacks on cultural heritage, and its use to fuel tensions between groups, as part of its efforts to prevent conflict. These efforts should include integrating an indicator relating to cultural heritage in the EU’s early warning system, developing and maintaining contacts with local communities in various contexts so that they may alert, advise and assist the EU when threats to cultural heritage emerge, and mapping cultural heritage that may become toxic or be instrumentalised by certain actors to drive conflict.

8. The EU should address the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage through engagements that are sensitive to the needs of local populations and by enhancing the integration of the different instruments at its disposal.

  • The EU should recognise that the involvement of local people in the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage (e.g. to dig, seize and/or transport artefacts) often stems from their need to support themselves in a context where their livelihoods have been destroyed by conflict. As part of its efforts to address illicit trafficking, the EU should address the needs of local populations and help to provide them with sustainable alternative livelihoods.

9. The EU should reflect critically on the role of cultural heritage in Europe and on the role of Europe with respect to cultural heritage from/in other regions.

  • The EU should ensure that it does not engage in, or project an image of, ‘white saviour’, neocolonialist and paternalistic behaviour in how it approaches cultural heritage and engages with local populations. In particular, it should avoid imposing its framings and understandings on local issues, it should respect the expertise, the experience and the essential role of local actors, and it should avoid using language relating to pity or charity in its exchanges with partners and local populations. Instead, it should emphasise how these issues impact everyone, including people in Europe.

These points and others are explored in more detail in the report from the meeting, which is available online.

[1] The Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) is a mechanism for dialogue between civil society and EU policy-makers on issues related to peace and conflict. It is co-financed by the European Union (Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace and managed by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), a civil society network, in co-operation with the European Commission (EC) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). The fourth phase of the CSDN will last from 2020 to 2023. For more information, please visit the EPLO website.

Lorenzo Angelini is the Policy Officer responsible for coordinating EPLO’s work relating to peace, development and security, the climate crisis and EU-Africa relations.

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