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Italy creates a UNESCO emergency task force for culture

by Andrea Carli

Italy has created a task force for culture. Under the UNESCO umbrella, it will be used in crisis areas to safeguard the world’s cultural heritage, today increasingly threatened by Islamic terrorism. Italy is the first country to propose this solution.

The Memorandum of Understanding for the creation of the Blue Helmets of Culture was signed yesterday in Rome by the Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and by Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. The meeting was also attended by Dario Franceschini, the Minister of Cultural Heritage, Stefania Giannini, the Minister of Education and Roberta Pinotti, the Minister of Defense.

The agreement also includes the establishment in Turin of an international center for training and research on the economy of culture and on world heritage, with the task of assisting UNESCO with research and higher education.

This center will rely on the know-how of leading cultural institutions, such as the University of Turin and La Venaria Reale Consortium.

The expense for the creation of this institute, as written in the text of the agreement, will be borne by the Municipality, “relieving the Italian government of all costs and expenses.”

For now there are about sixty Italian Blue Helmets of Culture: 30 Carabinieri, an Italian Police and Armed Force, and thirty civilians. They work side by side: the teams are “mixed.”

The police will be on the front line: they have extensive experience in the protection of artistic heritage, both on a national level as well as in war zones. From a technical point of view, the military will be able to rely on the advice of restoration technicians from the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro: art historians, archeologists, architects, chemists and restorers of various types of materials, from ceramics to stone to wood.

The task force #UNITE4HERITAGE will be used where the United Nations organization considers it appropriate to act. “Blue helmets” will assess the risks and quantify the damage to the cultural heritage, devise action plans and urgent measures, perform technical supervision, provide training courses for local staff, assist with the transport of movable objects to safe shelters and strengthen the fight against looting and the illegal traffic in cultural assets.

Presently, the project is still at a political stage. To gain a more practical value, some operational issues will have to be resolved.

“It will not be easy,” said Paolo Gentiloni, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “We have compiled a first list, but it is still a draft.”

Concretely, the procedure is as follows: a UNESCO member state requests in a formal manner, through the United Nations organization, the intervention of the Italian Blue Helmets of Culture.

Syria, Afghanistan and Libya are UNESCO members, therefore, at least on paper, they could put forward requests. At least on paper, considering that often there is (still) no interlocutor, as is the case of Libya, or it doesn’t have control of the entire territory (Syria and Afghanistan).

In short, once the solution has been identified, it will not be easy to apply it.

The goal of the Italian project is to set a good example, that is, to convince more and more states to support the international missions, under the aegis of the United Nations with interventions targeted to safeguarding monuments and works of art endangered by the violence of war. The systematic destruction by the Islamic State of the treasures of the ancient city of Palmyra in northern Syria has been witnessed by all.

“Italy is the first country that makes available to UNESCO a task force for the protection of cultural heritage. I hope many countries will follow this path,” said Franceschini. According to Gentiloni, the Blue Helmets of Culture are a “very Italian piece of the anti-terrorism strategy.”

Italy, with its large artistic heritage, is leading the way on this ground: the country boasts 51 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. And over 170 archeological missions throughout the world.