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A coordinated, holistic approach is required to protect heritage in conflict and disaster zones


Photo: Jad Tabet, architect and urban planner form Lebanon, together with Nicholas Jeffreys, Assistant Director General for Administration and Management, and Maja Zalaznik, High Level Reflection Group member.

“The greatest threat to the protection of cultural heritage is violent conflict, which is so often rooted in cultural intolerance. It is very important to understand that in many of these regions, heritage is mixed, because cultures are mixed. And people driven by extreme ideologies will seek to destroy heritage because it is mixed – because it is a heritage where different cultures and civilisations are together. Only by strengthening and educating ourselves about our diversity can we rebuild from such hatred,” says Jad Tabet, architect and urban planner from Lebanon.

We see often that issues of culture and heritage are at the centre of conflicts across the world. Factors like climate change, which drive conflict, also contribute to heritage loss, both directly and indirectly. Speaking from his experience working and living in the Middle East, Jad Tabet explains that in conflict, the destruction of heritage can be both collateral, and deliberate - and it ties directly to the violence inflicted on the victims of conflict.

What we see in these situations goes beyond racism – it is a denial of the human condition. It is a rejection of a person’s humanity. And the people impacted by conflict are the very people that guard and carry forward heritage. When they are driven from their homes, on the roads, in refugee camps – they are cut off from their heritage, and their capacity to transmit it is reduced. Not only that, we have children now whose entire lives have been defined by conflict. Their only memories are of violence, displacement, camps... To preserve heritage and promote cultural cooperation, we have to reconnect these children with their cultural memory.

Jad Tabet, architect and urban planner form Lebanon

This issue – of new generations losing connection to their heritage – was one of the top concerns cited by respondents to UNESCO’s World in 2030 Survey who were worried about traditions and cultures at risk. For Jad Tabet, as for respondents, teaching culture and heritage through education is a vital solution:

“With very limited resources, with the Order of Architects and Engineers in Lebanon, in cooperation with the Order of Arab Architects, we ran a series of workshops with young Syrian and Lebanese children, from around ages 9 to 14. We have a lot of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. We did workshops on their heritage – tangible - that is buildings, urban heritage – but also intangible, and it was very successful. They learned things together about their identities. And these young people were so happy to discover things about their memory and their roots. They felt proud of their heritage. When you have been deprived of such things throughout your life, this is so important.” 

Cities: witnesses to culture, repositories of heritage and future bastions of sustainability

As with education, says Jad Tabet, heritage and culture must also be protected in cities. Such spaces house innumerable examples of cultural activity and are repositories of heritage, he says. In regions where cities, their neighbourhoods, museums, artefacts, and institutions of learning, have been looted and destroyed, we see in stark relief and on a grand scale the impacts of conflict and disaster on cultural life and memory. Where such spaces are emptied as people flee, culture goes with them. People are the heart of culture and heritage, says Jad Tabet.

Not only this, current and future growth of cities means that in the future, as the world population becomes more concentrated in urban areas, concerted efforts will need to be made to protect and nourish cultural life, through both prevention and mitigation of conflict and disaster, as well as sustainable, creative and inclusive growth of urban landscapes.

“The issue of cities is central. Already, most of the world’s population lives in cities, and in coming decades more and more people will move to urban areas. We will see massive growth, especially in Africa, Asia and the Arab States, where up to now the urban population was much less than in the Western world. We’re witnessing something that recalls what happened in the Industrial Revolution: a mass movement of a range and scale not seen since that time. We must address this issue; and we must address it in the form of holistic, sustainable cities.”

Initiatives like UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network can help foster cultural participation and inclusive, sustainable development in cities.  Beirut, Lebanon, is one such city, and has recently experienced an unimaginable disaster.

Rebuilding the cultural, heritage and urban fabric of Beirut 

 “I live 2.5km from the port where the explosion was. In my house I had damage – glass, wood, everywhere… this was a catastrophe. Lebanon has known – including in modern history – many painful events. In this case, a single moment destroyed everything. The area near the explosion was not destroyed during the 15 years’ war – it kept a certain equilibrium. It had a mixed population – of generations and of origin. It was very lively. It was also a place where you had a large concentration of cultural and artistic activities – painting, cinema, radio, music. It was all completely destroyed.”

It is not just the physical infrastructure and tangible heritage of Beirut which has been damaged, says Jad Tabet, but also the social and urban fabrics of the city. Such deep injury requires a coordinated and sustainable build back. According to Jad Tabet, we must firstly support physical structures, with particular focus on schools and hospitals; then return residents to prevent sharp demographic change and population displacement; then we need a significant focus on the return of economic and cultural activities essential for the revitalisation of the city. In the long run, he says, we must ensure the rehabilitation of damage to heritage buildings, to both restore and reinforce them against future disaster; enact legislation to protect the city’s social and cultural fabric; and work on public spaces to encourage social mixing – an idea with a lot of potential, says Jad Tabet, in a city of such vibrant cultural diversity.

In the wake of the disaster, UNESCO launched the Li Beirut campaign to coordinate emergency and longer-term measures to safeguard the city’s severely damaged education system and cultural heritage.

When the Director-General came to Beirut to launch the Li Beirut initiative, I think she really felt how much the Lebanese people were waiting for UNESCO.

Jad Tabet

UNESCO’s strength as an international institution to engender global mobilisation for the protection of heritage is one of its key comparative advantages, according to Jad Tabet. Mechanisms, he says, like the World Heritage Convention’s List in Danger, and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage also provide important safeguards for global heritage, and have in the past engendered international mobilisation for heritage protection. In the future, says Jad Tabet, UNESCO will need to leverage the private sector for such mobilisation, in the bounds of strict, clear agreements.  For Jad Tabet, UNESCO’s multilateral role for heritage protection is complemented by its holistic approach to heritage, incorporating, among other things, education, culture and art.

“In these circumstances, what differentiates UNESCO from other UN agencies? It goes beyond pure education; it adds something more. And this is culture. UNESCO is the organisation – The Organisation – that works for culture.”

You can donate to UNESCO’s Li Beirut initiative on its webpage.

Jad Tabet is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.


*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO.