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Representatives of around 40 countries have approved plans to establish a fund to protect heritage sites in war zones and a network of safe havens for endangered artworks.
“We are committed to pursuing [these] two ambitious, long-term goals to guarantee the further mobilisation of the international community for the safeguarding of heritage,” a statement issued on Saturday after a two-day meeting in the United Arab Emirates capital said.
The meeting’s Emirati and French co-sponsors had set a $100m target for the fund but the statement did not specify how much had been pledged.
France, which along with the United Arab Emirates is spearheading the initiative, said it would contribute around $30m.
Other states, including the Gulf monarchies and China, have shown a willingness to contribute to the fund which would be based in Geneva, but without specifying amounts.
The fund aims to safeguard cultural heritage endangered by conflicts, finance preventive and emergency operations, combat the illicit trafficking of artefacts and help restore damaged cultural property, based on a draft declaration yet to be finalised.
Participants hope the international network of refuge zones under discussion will be used to temporarily store cultural property endangered by conflicts.
But with sovereignty a sensitive issue, such assets would only be moved out of a concerned country after a request by its government, according to a source taking part in the discussions.
Art treasures should first be moved to a safe place within the country itself. Moving them to a neighbouring country would be a second option while sending them elsewhere would be a last resort.
Some countries, including Egypt, have expressed reservations about the creation of safe havens, a delegate told the AFP news agency.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told participants that this should be a “last option” and there should be “guarantees for the safe return” of cultural property to the country of origin.
Greece has long sought the return from Britain of ancient sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens but were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin two centuries ago.
Participants at the conference will call on the UN Security Council to support the initiative, according to the declaration.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will oversee the safeguarding operations.
The international government representatives as well as public and private institutions at the Abu Dhabi conference have been debating since Friday how to preserve heritage and treasured works of art.
From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan to Iraq, armed groups have targeted priceless cultural heritage sites that they deem to be against their religion.
The world watched in dismay as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group systematically destroyed monuments in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra which it seized in 2015.
In Iraq, videos showed the same group using bulldozers and explosives to destroy Nimrud, a jewel of the Assyrian empire south of Mosul, and ransacking pre-Islamic treasures in Mosul’s museum.
The meeting coincided with an announcement by Swiss authorities that they had seized cultural relics looted from Palmyra, Libya and Yemen that were being stored in Geneva’s free ports.
Participants from Switzerland on Saturday shared the country’s experiences in offering safe haven to art works during times of conflict, providing examples as old as the Spanish civil war.