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Sat 11 Jan 2020 11:50 AM

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Opinion: the sound of silence from UNESCO is disappointing

While Trump's threat on Twitter to attack Iranian cultural sites isn't surprising, what is disappointing is the deafening silence from global bodies like UNESCO. Aren't they supposed to police this kind of rhetoric and loudly condemn it?

Opinion: the sound of silence from UNESCO is disappointing

Harsh Words Trump refused to back down from his comments on Iran

In 2012 militants attacked the city of Timbuktu in Mali, leading to the destruction of ten important religious and historical landmarks, including a World Heritage site since 1988.

In an unprecedented move, the International Criminal Court (ICC) took action and Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, the leader of the militia group Ansar Dine, was convicted in 2016 of war crimes for destroying cultural artefacts.

The ICC usually focuses on humanitarian issues, and Al-Mahdi’s case was the first of its kind. It “breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values,” UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova said at the time. Al-Mahdi eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Fast forward to 2020 and this case has huge relevance to the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran following the killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

As Tehran vowed revenge, President Donald Trump hit back in his usual way – on Twitter – and said in a series of posts: “We have ... targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” and “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets... Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

Armed conflict

The comments related to Iranian cultural sites drew immediate criticism on Twitter and some of Trump’s cabinet quickly tried to wash over his comments. The US will “follow the laws of armed conflict”, including those that rule out targeting cultural sites, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told The Guardian.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked by CNN if cultural and sites were fair target, said the US “will be bold in protecting American interests and we’ll do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law. We’ve always done that… and President Trump’s tweet doesn’t deviate from that one iota”.

But Trump doesn’t care and he didn’t told back when the criticisms were put to him by reporters aboard Air Force One: “They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people, they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

Garden state

Iran is currently home to 24 World Heritage sites, as listed by the Paris-based UNESCO, including the Persian Garden, which has its roots in the 6th century BC, was conceived to symbolise the famous Garden of Eden and has influenced the art of garden design as far as India and Spain.

While some headlines were accusing Trump of threatening to carry out war crimes, one thing that was unusual was the fact that those who had come out with strong comments on Al-Mahdi’s case and the destruction of sites in Mali were now suddenly quiet.

UNESCO summoned Ahmad Jalali, Iran’s ambassador to the entity, to discuss the growing tensions in the region and how best to protect the country’s historical and cultural sites. We wonder if the fact that Iran had threatening to attack the White House – you can’t get any bigger in the US when it comes to cultural and historical sites – was up for discussion in Paris?

No comment?

But no mention of Trump and his bombastic threats on Twitter. When Arabian Business requested an interview with UNESCO and asked if they would comment specifically on Trump’s tweets and statements, a spokesperson said “no further comments will be made at this stage”.

Of course, the UNESCO director-general couldn’t summon the US Ambassador to UNESCO to Paris for a dressing down as Trump pulled the US out of the organisation in 2017.

While UNESCO seemed able to shout loud about the attacks in Mali when it was Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, it is strange and disappointing to see it remain so muted when it comes to the US president.

With UNESCO only having 3 million followers, as opposed to Trump’s 70 million and growing, maybe they knew that it would be impossible to win the Twitter war. Ironically, on January 1 UNESCO tweeted this: “Our wishes for 2020? Just one. One word. One hope. One goal” alongside the word peace 30 times. Since then? Nothing.