Over the weekend the Russian army’s missile attacks on the Ukrainian port city of Odesa massively damaged not only on the Transfiguration Cathedral, built by Catherine the Great, but also three museums. The Museum of Literature in the Old Town was hit particularly hard. Eighty windows on three floors were shattered, exhibition rooms wrecked and the ceiling partially collapsed, Kateryna Yergiyeva, an employee at the Odesa Literature Museum, told Deutschlandfunk radio in an interview.
Asked what should be done to protect UNESCO cultural sites, such as the Old Town of Odesa, Yergiyeva replied: “Good air defense systems are the most effective help.”
Expel Russia from UNESCO World Heritage Commission
Just as infrastructure destruction is a strategically chosen target of Russian attacks on Ukraine, so is culture. Shortly after the devastating attacks over the weekend (July 23), World Heritage Watch, a global network monitoring UNESCO World Heritage sites, is calling for the Russian Federation to be expelled from UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission.
There could be no more blatant reason for exclusion from this body than the destruction, committed with the intent of genocide, of cultural heritage that was by definition the common heritage of humanity (World Heritage), the association said in Berlin.
It was time for humanity to take a stand against this barbarism, Stephan Dömpke, chairman of World Heritage Watch, told DW. Russia had forfeited any right to play a role in international bodies that advise or decide on the protection of cultural property, he said.
“So far, there has never been an exclusion from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee,” Dömpke said, adding that it should now happen. He hopes that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will now take the necessary steps. “Ukraine is a member state of the World Heritage Commission,” he continued. “And the Foreign Minister has repeatedly taken a very clear position on the Ukraine issue, clearer than anyone else. I hope that Germany will now also take diplomatic action on this issue.”
It was only in January that the historic center of Odesa was included in the United Nations World Heritage List on an expedited basis and immediately placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Saudi Arabia’s pivotal role
In all, 21 countries make up the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. They were elected by the 194 member countries. Saudi Arabia currently chairs the committee.
“Saudi Arabia, in its capacity, can convene the meeting and put the exclusion of the Russian Federation as the only item on the agenda. Then there would have to be a vote among the 21 member states,” Dömpke said.
Germany, which is a member of UNESCO but currently not of the World Heritage Committee, should take diplomatic action to bring about a majority, he said. That’s how it worked successfully in 2022, Dömpke affirmed, when Russia withdrew from the chairmanship of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at the urging of its members.
“At that time, such pressure was built up over months that Russia (represented by Russian Ambassador Alexander Kuznetsov, editor’s note) vacated the chair in October 2022. After that, the presidency went to Saudi Arabia, the next country in the English alphabet.”
Dömpke, however, expects resistance if it comes to a vote. “The African countries are uncertain candidates, but so is India. The Western countries don’t have a majority on their own, so there has to be decisive, diplomatic action.”
UNESCO wants discussion on Russia’s role
Commenting on the World Heritage Watch’s demands, Lutz Möller, Deputy Secretary-General of Germany’s UNESCO, told DW: “Germany is currently not a member of the World Heritage Committee. Like all State Parties, we are a member of the Conference of the Parties, which will meet in November. From our point of view, the Conference of the Parties should at least start a discussion about the fact that we need new rules that just make it possible to withdraw the right to vote in the World Heritage Committee.”
“From our point of view, it is simply intolerable that a state that itself shells world heritage sites, endangers human lives and kills people, that this state at the same time sits at the table and co-decides on the recognition of new world heritage sites,” Möller said.
Ukraine has called for Russia’s expulsion from UNESCO, Möller tells DW, but has not yet made a formal request. “In fact, the exclusion of a state from UNESCO is not provided for under its constitution. But that could be discussed, of course, but I don’t want to comment on speculation here now.”
Not only Odesa, but many other Ukrainian cultural and memorial sites have been attacked and in some cases destroyed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022.
UNESCO has already pledged $6.9 billion (€6.23 billion) to rebuild Ukraine’s entire cultural sector over the next decade.
This article was originally written in German.