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Culture on the Front Line of New Wars

Essays and Interviews 22.1
Irina Bokova

Director-General, UNESCO 

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in the conflicts and crises tearing apart Syria and Iraq. Several million more have either been displaced or become refugees in neighboring countries. The consequences on individual lives and the societies of these countries are deep and will persist long after these crises end. This impact is exacerbated by the attacks on culture seen in both countries. The tragic loss of human life is accompanied by the persecution of individuals on religious and cultural grounds and the intentional targeting, damaging, trafficking, and destruction of cultural heritage and traditions. In Iraq and Syria, we are witnessing what can be described as “cultural cleansing” on an unprecedented scale. This cultural cleansing is an attack on cultural diversity that combines the destruction of monuments and the persecution of people. In today’s new conflicts, those two dimensions cannot be separated. Violent extremism attacks human rights and dignity, seeking to destroy diversity and freedom in order to impose sectarian visions, a core aim of many of the new organizations rising up in different parts of the world, on societies that have always featured rich diversity, exchange, and dialogue across cultures...