A landmark accord was signed in Rome yesterday (16 February) establishing an emergency task force for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones.

The agreement was signed by UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, and Italy’s Minister for Foreign affairs, Paolo Gentiloni inside the 1st century Baths of Diocletian. It commits the Italian government to deploying cultural heritage experts to protect endangered cultural property at the request of UNESCO Member States.

Dubbed the ‘Peacekeepers of Culture’, the Task Force combines the expertise of art restorers, historians and scholars with Italy’s specialist police force for art crime, the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale. The Carabinieri have extensive experience combating the looting of stolen artworks and artefacts.

Task Force members may be called upon in the event of terrorist attacks or natural disasters to assess damage, plan conservation and tackle the illicit trade in art and antiquities. The accord also makes provision for the creation of a Task Force training centre in Turin.

Director-General Bokova said the task force would strengthen UNESCO’s ability to respond to future emergencies. She said it was important to “continue pressing for the inclusion of cultural heritage protection in humanitarian and peace efforts.”

The signing of the accord implements the Strategy adopted by Member States at UNESCO’s 70th General Conference held in Paris in November 2015. The Strategy seeks to reinforce UNESCO’S role in the protection of cultural heritage and was developed in direct response to the systematic destruction of historic sites and artefacts by militant groups such as ISIS in the Middle East.

Following the destruction by ISIS of the Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq in March 2015, Director-General Bokova called on regional leaders to confront the threat to their cultural property:

“There is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage,” she said.

At the signing ceremony yesterday, she drew attention to the persistent nature of the threat:

“We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture.”

The creation of the Task Force is also a significant development in UNESCO’s global coalition Unite for Heritage, a movement launched in June 2015 to “celebrate and safeguard cultural heritage and diversity around the world.”

It is hoped the Task Force will encourage countries worldwide to assist in tackling the growing threat to cultural heritage in global conflict zones.