Can ‘Blue Helmets of Culture’ Save the World’s Imperiled Heritage?

Can ‘Blue Helmets of Culture’ Save the World’s Imperiled Heritage?
Rubble fills Sharia al-Sweiqa inside the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Syria, Nov. 6, 2012 (AP photo by Monica Prieto).

With the self-proclaimed Islamic State increasingly out of the headlines and on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, the damage wrought by the extremist group on cultural sites in both countries is no longer a consistent source of international outrage, like it was two years ago. Yet the destruction of heritage goes on.

In January, for example, evidence emerged that Islamic State militants had wrecked more of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, demolishing the façade of the 2nd-century Roman theater, where the group had previously staged mass executions, and blowing up the Tetrapylon, whose monumental columns once anchored the main colonnaded street in the center of the city. The Islamic State recaptured Palmyra from Syrian and Russian forces last December; in March, the militants were mostly driven out again.

The Islamic State’s rampages have finally prompted new international measures that attempt to protect cultural sites and crack down on the illicit trade in antiquities that has helped fund militant groups. In late March, the United Nations Security Council passed its first-ever resolution focused on cultural heritage. Resolution 2347 condemns the destruction of cultural sites, warning that such acts could be war crimes.

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