Book launch and Discussion on 'Défendre l’humanité en protégeant son patrimoine. Un nouveau mandat pour les opérations de paix onusiennes’ (2021, Dalloz)

(Defending humanity by protecting its heritage. A new mandate of UN peace operations)

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With the author, Mathilde Leloup (OxPo)
Discussant: Laurence Whitehead (Nuffield College)


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In June 2012, northern Mali was occupied by Ansar Dine, the terrorist group that destroyed the mausoleums and manuscripts of Timbuktu classified on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In reaction to this event, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2100 on 25 April 2013, calling on the new UN peace operation launched in Mali (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to “assist the transitional authorities of Mali, as necessary and feasible, in protecting from attack the cultural and historical sites in Mali, in collaboration with UNESCO”. In 2015, the classified sites of Mosul, Hatra (Iraq), and Palmyra (Syria) were in turn subject to destruction by the so-called Islamic State. The example of the MINUSMA then became the heart of a fervent plea by UNESCO for the systematisation of the protection of immovable cultural heritage (i.e. monuments and archaeological sites) by United Nations peace operations.

The thesis of this book is the following: if the example of the protection of cultural heritage by the MINUSMA has gone from the status of an isolated event to that of an international symbol, it is because it embodies humanity, a notion that is as complex as it is appealing to international organisations. Humanity is traditionally understood in law on the basis of what threatens it— its enemies —and of what it possesses—a common heritage. Thus the fact that the MINUSMA intervened following the attacks perpetrated by a terrorist group against the humanity’s World Heritage in Mali in 2012 seems to make it an ideal example of the defence of this humanity. In order to give shape to this agonistic narrative scheme, certain actors (UNESCO, its Director General, and some of its member states) proceeded in three stages: a first stage criminalising those guilty of attacks on cultural heritage (terrorist groups), a second stage recognising the victimisation of the populations suffering from the destruction of heritage sites (local communities), and a final stage heroising the defenders of humanity’s heritage (UNESCO and its allies). This hypothesis was born out of the observation that the crisis situation that lasted from 2012 to 2015 during which many cultural World Heritage Sites were destroyed is similar to the atmospheres of “moral panics” and “moral euphoria” described by Matthew Flinders and Matthew Wood. Moral panic allows for the emergence of a “folk heroe”, an “agent of social concern (group, community, individual) that is feared by society due to the presumed moral deviancy of its behavior” (Flinders, Wood, 2015: 644). Moral euphoria, on the other hand, leads to the emergence of a “folk devil”, an “agent of social concern (group, community, individual) that is loved and held in awe by society due to the presumed moral fortitude of its behavior” (Ibid.). This opposition, once deprived of its theological significance, brought me to the triptych of criminalisation/victimisation/heroisation that forms the three parts of the thesis.

This threefold process reveals an instrumentalisation of the notion of humanity for political purposes by the defenders of systematic protection of cultural heritage by peace operations, allowing them to reposition themselves in the “hierarchy of multilateralism” while paradoxically covering all their actions with the “enchanted veil of apolitism” described by Jacques Lagroye (2003 : 371). It thus allowed UNESCO, which had suffered since its creation in 1945 from a lack of operational mandate, to be recognised as a “humanitarian actor” (in the same way as the UNDP or UNICEF) at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. It also gave its Director General Irina Bokova the opportunity to appear as a credible candidate to succeed Ban Ki Moon as UN Secretary General during her 2016 campaign. Finally, it facilitated the obtaining of a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for certain states such as Italy