Cultural heritage plays second fiddle to politics at UNESCO

A while back I wrote that UNESCO might be involved in evaluating and restoring archaeological sites vandalised by MINURSO peacekeeping personnel in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara, and promised an update on this matter in due course. Well, a due course has been run, so here’s the update.

After my initial complaint to MINURSO about the vandalism, and following coverage of the destruction in the Times newspaper and elsewhere, MINURSO undertook to address the bad behaviour of some of its staff. It has to be said that the MINURSO leadership took the issue seriously, and implemented at least some measures to try to prevent similar vandalism occurring in the future. The precise nature of these measures could still do with some clarification, although they did include the erection of signs at archaeological sites warning MINURSO staff to respect the cultural heritage of the region, under pain of military discipline.

One of the matters that I and colleagues discussed with MINURSO was the possible rehabilitation of vandalised rock art sites, involving the removal of existing MINURSO graffiti if this proved to be feasible (and this may turn out to be impossible without causing further damage to the sites). An obvious place to turn was UNESCO, the UN organisation responsible for science, education and culture, which has designated a number of historical sites around the globe as World Heritage Sites.

I was always somewhat sceptical of the prospects of getting UNESCO involved in the rehabilitation of damaged archaeological sites in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, given the presence of eight UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites in Morocco (not to mention UNESCO’s self-declared “close relationship” with the government of Morocco – Note on 12.02.09: this wording has now been removed from the UNESCO Morocco page), and the UN’s reluctance to engage with governments that are not universally recognised and which are not members of the UN (e.g. the Polisario, which is still fighting for recognition as the legitimate government of an independent Sahara, with heavy opposition from Morocco and its allies).

I was taken to task for my scepticism by a number of people who didn’t see what the problem was. After all, the conflict in Western Sahara is a political matter, and UNESCO is interested in preserving world heritage for all of humanity, a noble cause that should transcend politics. So why should UNESCO do anything but jump at the chance to help protect the unique, spectacular and threatened heritage of this little known region?

I’m sorry to say my scepticism seems to have been justified. MINURSO approached UNESCO for advice and assistance with the assessment and restoration of the sites in question. UNESCO’s eventual response was to provide MINURSO with a list of independent experts who might be able to assess and restore the sites. At least some of these experts had already been identified by my Spanish colleagues, who have been conducting the bulk of the research work into the rock art sites which were the targets of the vandalism. It was clear that UNESCO would have no direct involvement in any rehabilitation efforts.

As I wrote earlier, Morocco became quite exercised about the vandalism story, and over UNESCO’s role in particular. It was reported in the Moroccan daily l’Opinion on 5 February 2008 that UNESCO was moving to evaluate damage to sites in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara without bothering to consult Morocco. Obviously this was, to the Moroccans, an unconscionable violation of their self-declared sovereignty over this region in which they have no presence (1).

On 6 February 2008 UNESCO issued a statement (2) emphasising that its involvement in this matter consisted of the provision of a list of experts who could be consulted by MINURSO, and some vaguely defined assistance with information and publicity campaigns aimed at MINURSO personnel. The message was clear – UNESCO would give some low-level advice to MINURSO, but would not be involved directly in any assessment or restoration of the sites in question. In other words, it would not be treading on Morocco’s toes.

This statement was gleefully seized upon by the Moroccan press, which went on to report on 7 February that UNESCO had promised Morocco that it would not undertake any assessment of these sites without first obtaining permission to do so from the Moroccan government. Furthermore, it was reported that UNESCO had emphasised that it had no links with, and did not recognise, the Polisario.

These claims by the Moroccan media were widely dismissed as propaganda by a number of people who had been following the story (via personal communication). However, to my knowledge UNESCO did not issue any statement clarifying or refuting these claims by the Moroccan press (I am happy to be corrected on this, but have not been able to find any such statement). As far as I can tell, that seems to have been that – I’ve had no news of any further developments on the UNESCO front.

It seems that UNESCO was more concerned with a Moroccan panic about it getting involved in the preservation of cultural heritage in areas Morocco claims but does not control, than it was with press statements implying that the organisation was prepared to favour one side in a dispute over territory whose status is yet to be determined.

It is inconceivable that Morocco would not exert diplomatic pressure on UNESCO behind the scenes in this matter. UNESCO are certainly doing what Morocco wants, insofar as they are refusing to get involved in the assessment of damage done to valuable archaeological sites by another UN agency, or in efforts to rehabilitate these sites. We don’t know what undertakings UNESCO did or didn’t give the Moroccans, but the organisation is certainly acting in accordance with Morocco’s demands and wishes in this matter. I strongly suspect that UNESCO caved in to Moroccan pressure, meaning that a UN agency tasked with preserving world heritage sites is effectively taking sides in a political and military conflict, in a way that undermines efforts to preserve unique, important and threatened world heritage dating from prehistoric times.

Of course I wanted to hear UNESCO’s side of the story, so I emailed them. The email went to UNESCO HQ in New York ( and to UNESCO’s Bureau of Public Information ( That was on 26 February. Four months on I am yet to receive a reply. Given that I direct an archaeological research project in the region in question, that I’m the one who broke the story about the vandalism, that I have been discussing this matter constructively with MINURSO, and that I work regularly with UN agencies (so I’m far from being a UN hater), you’d think they might have wanted to talk to me. But, apparently, they don’t.

(1) The vandalism as recorded by our team and publicised in the world’s media took place in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” zone, in which there is no Moroccan presence. Parts of the Free Zone were occupied by Morocco during the war, before being abandoned or recaptured by the Polisario. Other parts of the Free Zone have never been occupied by Morocco. There is no access to the Free Zone from the Moroccan-controlled areas, except for UN personnel.

(2) This statement, and reproductions of the relevant articles from the Moroccan media, are collected in the 7 February MINURSO Press Review (click here to download – most of the relevant material is in French).


4 Responses to Cultural heritage plays second fiddle to politics at UNESCO

  1. Justin Anthony Knapp says:


    As always, the status quo favors the occupier. Keep on doing good work and don’t let them grind you down.


  2. 6xI’ll thingk about it.4g I compleatly disagree with last post . brg
    ламинат и паркет 2o

  3. […] an outcome that isn’t entirely to its own perceived advantage. Given Morocco’s apparent sabotaging of MINURSO’s attempts to engage UNESCO in the restoration process (no assistance from UNESCO […]

  4. […] legitimise its position in Western Sahara, in its ongoing and vigorous propaganda campaign. This politicking is also played out in the area of cultural heritage, as previous actions by Morocco have […]

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