Jan Pronk

Wisdom, Devotion and Modesty

Speech Conference 'Cultural Emergency Response', Prince Claus Fund, The Hague, 25 September 2006

"All we are breaking are stones", Mulla Mohammed Omar said, explaining the Taliban Islamic militia's decree to destroy the Bamyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. That was not true. The Taliban, destroying the largest standing Buddha statue in the world, dating back to the second century, were delivering a statement. They wanted to break more than stones. They wanted to break the spirit of another religion. They were after the soul of another culture, the mind of people worshipping other gods.

The Serbs bombing the National and University Library in Sarajevo had a similar objective. They wanted to destroy the heart of a multicultural society. They too delivered a political statement: 'Bosnia is ours; there is no place for people with a different culture, a different religion and different beliefs. There is in particular no place for Muslims'.

The looting of the Baghdad museum had a similar effect. The American troops, claiming that they had come to Iraq to liberate the people and to bring democracy, let professional thieves as well as the mob plunder the Iraq museum, which hosted numerous cultural objects from the early periods of one of the oldest civilizations of the Middle East. The political statement implied was one of total disrespect for the historical identity and culture of the society that the occupying forces claimed to set free.

This practice is from all times. During World War II German military stole paintings in the countries they occupied. The Nazi's burned books and confiscated so-called 'entartete Kunst'. Napoleon brought to France cultural objects from the countries he had invaded. Spaniards, Britons and Dutch plundered their colonies in Africa, Asia and South America. They killed indigenous people and shipped others to slave markets. They robbed these societies, bringing indigenous raw materials to Europe and cultural artifacts back home. In the sixteenth century mobs in Holland tore to pieces the statues in Roman Catholic churches. Several centuries earlier, crusaders from all over Europe had demolished mosques on their way to Jerusalem, trying to drive out Arabs and Muslims from the Holy Land. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem had been pillaged more than once. And, returning to the present, the destruction of each other's holy buildings in violent religious confrontations between Sunnites and Shiites in Iraq, between Muslims and Hindus in India and between Muslims and Christians in the Indonesian Moluccans shows that everywhere stones are broken in order to break spirits.

The destruction and plundering of museums, statues, libraries, temples, churches and mosques and the stealing of paintings, books and art is shameful. The failure of the descendants of the thieves and plunderers to restore the evil, to reconstruct what has been destroyed and to return what has been stolen is as shameful. The hesitation of Western countries to sign and implement international conventions to return stolen cultural property, arguing that the countries of origin cannot be trusted to protect their cultural heritage, discloses arrogance, hypocrisy and greed. We need a broad based political initiative to restore past wrong doings and show our commitment to refrain from similar destruction and plundering in the future.

The initiative of the Prince Claus Fund, together with the International Committee of the Blue Shield, to launch the Cultural Emergency Response is laudable. In the event of damage to - or destruction of - cultural property arising from man-made or natural disasters, emergency assistance is called for. The Cultural Emergency Response deserves much support, both public and private. Tomorrow's symposium can help to enhance the political support for the idea of culture as an essential element of humanitarian assistance.

Four Questions

However, allow me to pose four questions.

First: Is it sensible to focus our attention on pillage of cultural objects in periods of conflict? One could argue that destruction of cultural property does not only take place during periods of war, but also in times of peace. The Cultural Emergency Response has recognized this, referring to climate change and natural disasters such as the earthquake in Iran and the recent Tsunami. However, there are also other factors that lead to destruction of cultural objects. Economic growth, modernization and globalization result in a ruined landscape, a knock-down of age-old city centers and the sacrificing of historical buildings. The radical renovation of the city of Beijing, resulting in the total erasing of the hutongs is the most drastic example of the last two decades. The annihilation of the landscape, villages and habitat due to the construction of the Three Gorges dam in the Jangse in China or the Merowe in the Nile in Sudan are no less drastic and irreversible. There are many examples in Europe as well, including The Netherlands. In one of my previous capacities, as Minister of Spatial Planning in The Netherlands, I have tried to prevent arbitrary, one-sided and irreversible spoiling of culturally and historically valuable elements of our natural and man-made environment by introducing seven criteria of so-called spatial quality. These spatial values included for instance diversity, sustainability and attractiveness. [1] At the time the Dutch Government proposed to incorporate these values into law. However, the Parliament postponed the discussion of the code. The new government had a completely different view. They withdrew the proposed law and replaced it by a code based on economic and commercial criteria only. One may regret this, but it is inherent to a normal democratic process of decision making, which is legitimate, even if the consequences are irreversible. On the other hand, destruction of cultural property in war times takes place outside normalcy, beyond legitimacy and short of democracy. Already for that reason war time destruction deserves the special attention as proposed by the originators of the Cultural Emergency Response.

However, there is a second question. How tragic is the smashing of cultural artifacts and historical objects, either in peace or war, even if the destruction is irreversible? Personally I was not so much alarmed by the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamyan Buddha's as I was, some years earlier, when I witnessed during a number of visits to Afghanistan the sheer extinction of half of the city of Kabul. It resembled Dresden, ganz kaput. This total destruction was a result of merciless bombings by the same warlords with whom the international allied forces conspired in the war against the Taliban. The resulting plight of the surviving population was heart breaking, more than the breaking of the stones several years later.

I must admit that I have had similar feelings about the destructions in Iraq. I was less outraged by the looting of the Iraq museum than about the military intervention itself, the violation of norms and rules enshrined in international law, the way in which the Security Council of the United Nations had been brushed aside, the lies with which this intervention was defended, the treatment of the prisoners in Abou Ghraib, the numerous deaths since the intervention and the violence between the Sunni and Shiite population after the intervention, which could have been foreseen and had been projected, but all warnings had been ignored. The looting of the museum was a cultural emergency; the destruction of norms and values accompanying the intervention in Iraq was a cultural catastrophe.

It was not different in Sarajevo. The sight of the destroyed museum is more than saddening. However, I feel greater sadness when passing the market, not far from the museum, where similar bombs resulted in a bloodbath, killing dozens of people who had no other choice than going to that very market and buy their food in order to stay alive. Close by, people walking on the street leading to the museum, alongside the river Drina, were an easy target for snipers. Many have been shot. Several hundred meters behind the museum is a graveyard with the bodies of men and women, boys, girls and infants, all of them killed during the siege of Sarajevo. I have visited the city many times, during the siege and afterwards. I have felt fear as well as anger and bewilderment that people have been able to hurt each other that much, for reasons of cultural identity.

However, having said al this, the destruction of the library in Sarajevo, the museum in Baghdad and the statutes in Bamyan forms part of the destruction of life in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The destruction of the cultural heritage of these societies is a token of the destruction of the norms and values that has led to war and death. The reconstruction of this heritage is a symbol that life returns, that the society is no longer paralyzed, that the culture is vibrant and that there is no parting between its past and its future. The destruction is a tragedy indeed and a response by means of reconstruction does make sense.

Third question: Is destruction a catastrophe or an opportunity? Some people argue that willful and deliberate tearing down and replacement of existing buildings, monuments or other objects in peacetime in order to start something else, reflects a spirit of renewal and progress, a breath of life. For that reason, they claim, modernization as such is culturally valuable, even if this takes place on the ruins of the past. What is gained by renewal is always more than what is lost by destruction.

In this view even the destruction of historically and culturally valuable objects due to war would not have to be deplored. After all, after any war life has taken its course again. Reconstruction has been taken up with vigor. New cultural expressions have got a chance. Even violence and oppression itself can lead to the creation of new masterpieces. Violence breeds new cultural creativity. Read Im Westen Nichts Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, or the poems of the war poets during the First World War. See Picasso's Guernica; listen to the symphonies of Sjostakovitsj. Such is life, such is history; this is cultural development.

There is truth in this line of reasoning. Protection and conservation of existing objects per se is not an aim in itself. Destruction of artifacts does not end creativity as such. However, objects, buildings and monuments are more than stones. Books are more than paper. Paintings are more than paint and linen. Culture is more than matter. Culture is the spirit, soul and mind of a community. Destruction of that culture is an attack on life itself.

Fourth question: how important is this at the global level? How widespread is the phenomenon of cultural destruction in times of conflict, violence and war? Presently such destruction does not seem to take place in North and South America, nor in Australia or in the largest part of Asia. In Africa it is not widespread either. In those parts of the world it seems to be a phenomenon of the past, during periods of foreign invasion and Western colonization. Presently attacks on history and culture seem to be a problem of mainly Europe and its backyard: the Middle East and South and South West Asia.

However, what may be true at first sight will be different if the concept of culture is defined in broader terms.

The culture of the people of Darfur, Sudan, in material terms, is not embodied in age-old buildings and monuments, but in villages and in cattle, and reflected in tribal relations and traditional customs. The civil war in Darfur has not resulted in the destruction of buildings in the towns, but in whole villages, hundreds and hundreds of them, systematically. It results in the looting of camels, thousands and thousands, in poisoning of water wells, in rape of women and girls and in the killing of not only combatants belonging to another tribe or another party, but also of babies and children. All these atrocities, close to ethnic cleansing, are efforts to kill the heart of a community, to destroy its culture in order to annihilate its existence and survival. The sign over the door of the Kabul Museum declares: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive". This is not only true for nations, but also for communities, for cities, for villages, for ethnicities and tribes. However, protecting the life of a culture implies more than saving historical artifacts and monuments. Culture includes everything which binds a community together and which forms a link between that community and its past and future.

I remember Rwanda 1994. Three weeks after the genocide I visited, together with a team of UN peacekeepers, a village in the neighborhood of Kigali. It was horrific. There were no people left alive in the village. The doors of all houses stood wide open. The villagers had been driven out of their homes. They clearly had taken some of their most precious belongings with them: children's toys, family photo albums with pictures of festivities and marriages. Had they not known what would happen to them? Or were these the most important cultural artifacts from which they did not want to be separated on their last walk to death? They had not been allowed to do so. We found many toys and albums lying on the streets, torn and stained. In the church we found bodies of people who had been hacked to death. The genocide had desecrated everything: village life, community structures, church values and family bonds. We hesitated whether we should take the photo albums with us back to Kigali, as proof, or out of respect, or to keep a memory alive. We decided not do this, out of piety and left them lie on the streets, in the village, close to the homes, so that they would decay together with the bodies of the people who were depicted on the photos. Until today I do not know whether we had done the right thing.

It is the same hesitation that I feel when reading the story of Amitav Ghosh about his visit to the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the Tsunami. [2] The Director of the malaria institute discovers the painting box of his daughter, who had drowned, but he does not pick it up, because it is a too tangible memento of his daughter. It hurts too much. Instead he takes some slides from his scientific archive that, in the words of Ghosh, 'derived their meaning from the part of his life that was lived in thought and contemplation'. Would I have made the same choice? I wonder. However, I do understand: toys, painting boxes, photo albums, slides, archives and books represent a bond, a bond with other people, with the past, with the environment, with the community, with life. They are a source of inspiration and represent the meaning of life, for each and every person in a different way.

Four Responses

The agenda for this conference includes two items that deserve special attention. First: culture in the field of humanitarian emergency relief. Second: the impact of humanitarian disaster on culture and identity. In the underlying texts the two concepts of humanitarian and cultural emergency are used interchangeably, without distinction. The same is true for two other concepts used in these texts: relief and response. Can this be justified?

Let me venture four statements.

First: any humanitarian emergency is a cultural emergency and any cultural emergency is a humanitarian emergency. People starving because of deprivation, people dying due to violence, it all implies a death of values. And, on the other hand, a loss of culture threatens the life and survival of a community.

Second: cultural heritage is more than cultural property. It includes traditions, customs, values and ways to ensure the survival and continuity of a community. Both, cultural property and cultural values embody the mind, spirit and soul of a community. Together with community structures such as land and water usage relations, traditional justice patterns, authority positions of the elders in a society, they reflect rules of existence, survival, development and progress. In this sense, in many societies a loss of cultural heritage implies a humanitarian emergency.

Third: response is more than relief. What is required is not only restoration, but also prevention, not only physical action but also political. In one of the brochures of the Prince Claus Fund Els van der Plas writes: "Freedom of cultural expression and respect for cultural identity … form the ideological basis for … a cultural emergency response". [3] I fully agree. But this implies that such a response should go beyond the protection and restoration of cultural property. Protection of community values is as important as the restoration of its artifacts. Defense of internationally agreed norms and values that constitute human progress is even more important than the restoration of demolitions due to violations of these norms. Restoration of the consequences of violations without preservation of the underlying values would not make much sense.

Another worldwide war is the most fundamental humanitarian emergency threatening the existence and survival of human beings. A new world clash is a distinct possibility. We may stumble into such a war, as predicted by Robert McNamara in his book In Retrospect [4] and, more recently, by Richard Holbrooke in an essay The Guns of August. [5] Both authors warn against errors of judgment, which can catalyze an already grossly insecure environment and a process of political instability into situations beyond any control and explosions of violence and death. The implied humanitarian disaster is a cultural catastrophe as well.

The underlying forces of all conflicts are the same. All conflicts are both economic and political. All conflicts have implications for scarcity, resources and the natural environment. All of them have social, religious, ethnic and tribal connotations. All conflicts are also of a cultural character, either directly or because the economic or political root causes have cultural dimensions.

The wars in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan have not started for cultural reasons. But all of them, and also all other conflicts in the Middle East, have overriding cultural dimensions. Cultural differences play an important role in the sharpening of conflicts. Conflicts that have started for different reasons are easily perceived in terms of a clash between Islam and the West. The North South divide of the last four decades of the previous Millennium is being perceived as a form of Global Apartheid. It is frightening in itself, because such denominations imply that people are caught in a group and have to take sides with the others in the same group.

That brings me to my fourth and last statement. It is a request to the participants of the conference: please, do not only discuss the impact of humanitarian disasters on culture but also the impact of culture on humanitarian disaster.

The impact of humanitarian disaster on culture I saw in the early nineteen nineties in Somalia, where aid workers had organized an emergency assistance camp for displaced people. They worked frantically and were quite successfully saving lives. However, those were the lives of the people who had been able to reach the camp. On the other side of a sandy road around the camp people were dying. They could not walk anymore, tried to cross the road and creep towards the camp. Many died, no more than fifty meters away. We, Western aid workers and donor agencies, clearly had taken a decision, explicitly or implicitly, to impose our rules and procedures and to close our eyes for the consequences. Maybe the aid resources did not allow sharing with the nearly dead. Maybe the aid workers were so exhausted that they could not afford to go another mile. Maybe that, like a few years later in Potocari, Srebrenica, they had come to the conclusion that rational thought left only one conclusion: to save some people you have to sacrifice others. However, it reflected an erosion of norms and values, a wrecking of cultural beliefs.

From its side the erosion of cultural norms and values has a paramount impact on humanitarian disaster. Present day conflicts in the world, whether themselves basically cultural clashes, a jockeying for power or a battle for resources, territory and Lebensraum are becoming an ever more danger to peace because international relations have become a cultural wreck. After the Second World War the international community made an effort to institutionalize peace by establishing a new order, with a Charter, in which internationally agreed norms and values were enshrined. For more than five decades international law, national sovereignty, co-existence, non-intervention, human rights and international cooperation were the dominating themes. National sovereignty had to be respected, but at the same time countries were willing to let themselves restrained in the exercise of their power by agreed procedures of international consensus. Countries and nations should be set free on the basis of pressure, persuasion and internationally agreed norms and values. War was no longer an option. Peace was here to stay.

It was a powerful structure of norms, values, cultural beliefs and consensus procedures, agreed by all, whatever the economic, geographical, historical or cultural differences. It has been wrecked. Today we witness in many countries not a desire to cooperate, but an absolute belief in one's own right, an overemphasis of one's own security, a glorification of one's own values and one's own power. There is a total lack of understanding of the position of other parties in the world, their beliefs, their values and objectives, their domestic constraints. There is also a frightening lack of political will to try to understand the other. Arrogance towards regimes with another cultural background, deliberate or calculated ignorance about other cultures, blindness for the possible consequences of the imposition of one's own values on others - even if such values, such as the concept of democracy, have proven themselves as 'right'- , a lack of political will to seek alternative approaches, all this reflects a tendency to adhere to a culture of war rather than a culture of peace. Indeed, the acceptance of one sided intervention, the introduction of the concept of a pre-emptive strike, the application of a practice of disproportionate over-reaction and, most recently, the general acceptance of the notion 'give war a chance' have replaced a longtime cherished pursuit of a culture of peace.

This cultural degeneration finds also expression in demonizing opponents, denouncing them as extremists or terrorists, by taking them captive in secrecy, denying them due process of law and by the uncritical acceptance of the death of civilians as collateral damage. In the undeclared wars of today - not wars between nation states, but wars between states and movements - as well as in the war on terror. In particular during the last two decades, after the Cold War, we have witnessed a further degeneration of values: civilians become targets of deliberate attacks. Movements of insurgents, killing innocent bystanders, sow the seeds of chaos, fear and terror. States attack unarmed civilians, refugees and relief workers, broadcasting loudly that the enemy is hiding behind human shields and that the protection of their own people justifies the right not to distinguish anymore between combatants and non-combatants on the other side. Recently, Dershowitz even claimed that the nature of war has changed and that it is no longer possible to make a clear distinction between military and civilians: all civilians on the other side have taken sides and are giving refuge as well as political and cultural support to the enemy [6]. Statements and practices such as these imply a farewell to the culture of reason. They give way to a culture of revenge and retaliation. They sacrifice an essential recent cultural heritage: human rights; a humane treatment of our fellow men; co-existence of all people, irrespective of creed and beliefs and, last but not least, the rule of law.

Ignorance, arrogance, blindness, denial and lies characterize present international relations. We see it on both sides of the present divide: in the Christian and so-called enlightened West as well as in the Muslim and Arab Middle East. We see it amongst political leaders and leaders of public opinion, amongst fundamentalists on both sides of the divide as well as amongst the general public. That is the frightening cultural emergency of our times.

What should be our response, our Cultural Emergency Response? First: preserve and protect the future: the landscape, the water wells, the habitat, the natural environment, the earth and people's livelihoods, the basic educational and health care structures. Protect and strengthen the social fabric of the communities, as diversified as they are, their conflict solving capacities, their inherited basic values. Protect the modern cultural heritage embodied in international law. Reap the opportunities to further enhance our culture, again as diversified as possible, in a relationship of multi-cultural co-existence and mutual enrichment.

Second: preserve and protect the past. Save and conserve the libraries and the books. They contain the wisdom we so desperately need in the future. Protect and restore the statues: they show us the meaning not only of glory, but also of devotion. Save and restore the museums: they show us the achievements of our ancestors and teach us modesty.

Jan Pronk
Address Conference Cultural Emergency Response
Prince Claus Fund
The Hague, 25 September 2006

  1. Ruimte Maken, Ruimte Delen. Vijfde Nota Ruimtelijke Ordening. Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieu, Den Haag, 2000.
  2. Amitav Ghosh, The Town by the Sea/Na de Tsunami, Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2005.
  3. Els van der Plas, Introduction, in: Cultural Emergency Response, Prince Claus Fund, The Hague, 2003.
  4. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect, Times Books, New York, 1995.
  5. Richard Holbrooke, The Guns of August, Washington Post, 10 August 2006.
  6. Alan M. Dershowitz, Proportionaliteit is Illusie, Handelsblad NRC, 5 August 2006.