In Brief

Italy and UNESCO Establish Task Force to Protect Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones

A member of ISIS destroying an ancient Assyrian lamassu (still from the infamous ISIS propaganda video depicting destruction of the Mosul Museum)
A member of ISIS destroying an ancient Assyrian lamassu (screenshot from an ISIS propaganda video)

In the wake of ISIS’s most recently confirmed attack on cultural heritage — the destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery — Italy has teamed up with the United Nations to create a task force whose goal is to protect ancient artworks, artifacts, and archaeological sites in conflict zones from extremists, the AP reports.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova signed an agreement in Rome today, creating a 60-person-strong Italian task force of art detectives and restorers, dubbed Peacekeepers of Culture.

The force will establish a center in Turin, where it will train cultural heritage protection experts. It aims to “assess risk and quantify damage done to cultural heritage sites, develop action plans and urgent measures, provide technical supervision and training for local national staff,” the Italian ministry said in a statement. It will also help move some objects to safety “and strengthen the fight against looting and illegal trafficking of cultural property.”

“We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture,” Bokova said at the signing ceremony, which took place inside the majestic Baths of Diocletian. The Peacekeepers of Culture “could be in the future one of the essential components in the fight against terrorism,” Gentiloni said.

Task force members will include art-theft squad police from Italy’s Carabinieri military police force, known internationally for tracking down stolen and looted artworks, as well as art historians and Italian-trained restoration experts.

While protecting against “cultural cleansing” and the fear-mongering propaganda that comes with it, the task force also hopes to cut off some of the Islamic State’s funds acquired through the sale of looted artifacts, statues, and other antiquities on the black market.

The task force hasn’t yet chosen a country for its first mission, but its members “are already operational and ready to go where UNESCO sends them,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

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