Expert Meeting on The Role of Culture in Post-conflict and Post-disaster Situations

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Expert Meeting on The Role of Culture in Post-conflict and Post-disaster Situations

Hotel Arena, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 16 November 2007


Aim of the meeting

On 16 November 2007 the Netherlands National Commission for unesco organised an expert meeting on the role of culture in post-conflict and post-disaster situations, with the support of unesco HQ in Paris and the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. The aim of the meeting was to further highlight the importance of the role of culture by means of illustrating this with case studies in relation to relief, reconstruction and community development and thus raise the awareness of the importance of a cultural orientation next to, and not instead of, other intervention strategies. Several international speakers highlighted the various aspects concerning the role of culture in these circumstances (see Annex I for the Programme, Annex II for the List of Participants and Annex III for a List with Relevant Literature).


unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is the only UN organization with a clear mandate on culture. The importance of the role of culture in regards to promoting international peace and stability is gathering momentum within the UN. This is demonstrated by the statement made by the UN at the 2005 World Summit: “acknowledging the diversity of the world, we recognize that all cultures and civilizations contribute to the enrichment of humankind. We acknowledge the importance of respect and understanding for religious and cultural diversity throughout the world. In order to promote international peace and security, we commit ourselves to advancing human welfare, freedom and progress everywhere, as well as to encourage tolerance, respect, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples” (United Nations Resolution A/RES/60/1, par.14).

The last few years has seen an increase in the number of requests by Member States for assistance when it comes to the protection of their cultural (and natural) heritage in times of conflict and/or disaster. A recent example is the assistance of unesco in Lebanon after the latest conflict had left the cultural heritage sites damaged.

Yet despite the growing attention for a positive role of culture in post-conflict and post-disaster situations, there is still a long way to go before this idea receives the recognition it deserves. After a conflict or disaster, the initial attention goes to the basic needs like housing and medication. However, culture should not be forgotten in this respect. Culture plays an essential role in the creation of the identity of the individual as well as the group or nation. Next to shelter and proper medication, it is also important to be able to express oneself and be true to ones identity. Culture offers the possibility of bringing people together, of opening up a dialogue, creating an interaction between various groups or identities and work on the process of healing and rehabilitation together. Culture plays an important role in all the different phases of post-disaster development: relief, reconstruction and community development. This connecting and binding factor cannot be achieved by material aid alone, culture is just as much an essential part of aid as any other.

On the national level, the topic of post-conflict and post-disaster development is currently receiving the necessary attention in the Netherlands. The last few years have seen a lot of reflection on, and evaluation of, cultural policy interventions and cultural projects. Especially in communities or societies that have experienced disasters or have been involved in armed conflicts.

The expert meeting of 16 November 2007 was organized in order to closer examine the role of culture in post-conflict and post-disaster situations. When examining the process of the role of culture in such situations, the process can be broken up into three parts: relief, reconstruction and community development (See Annex IV). Even though this is an arbitrary division as it is not often possible to make a clear distinction between those three stages as they quite often interlink, it was used to structure the discussion regarding this broad topic, allowing for a closer look at the role of culture at various stages in the process.

This report does not closely record the programme and the input by the speakers and other discussants but rather reflects the overall themes that emerged during the day and as they were discussed during the closing session. These themes are written down in the form of six recommendations.


Outcomes of the meeting

A number of themes emerged during the presentations and the ensuing discussions. These are concerned with:

1. the notion of wilful damage and destruction;

2. the issue of conflicting views on history, culture and identity;

3. the kind of involvement of institutions, councils, partnerships, public/private sector in cultural initiatives;

4. capacity building is an essential strategy;

5. the importance of economic factors;

6. the challenge of an integrated approach.

1. First of all, many instances of wilful damage and destruction of cultural property were discussed. This is not only directed at cultural objects, but also at the people concerned, their safety or identity. In particular the younger generation needs special attention in these kind of circumstances as they will be the builders of the future. Furthermore, it is important to realise that the destruction of cultural property affects all the people, young and old and both the victims and offenders, at the time, or afterwards on the longer run. This should be taken into account when looking into ways to rebuild or reconstruct damaged property, as cultural property stands for the identity of the people. There is the misconception that cultural property is only targeted during an armed conflict. It is, however, also attacked at times when there is no active fighting in the area.


2. Another issue concerns the conflicting views on history, culture and identity. It should not be forgotten that art represents a voice and as such presents a certain view of the conflict or story. Monuments, for example, also embody a culture and its identity; they are the tangible expressions of it. Initiatives through art may represent the opinion of one side of the conflict which is not necessarily the same as those of other groups or communities. There is always more than one side to a story but mostly the one of the victor gets told. Hence it is imperative to also look at local wisdom and resources, as well as the regional and national identity for the complete picture. The ambiguity is that culture can be the cause of a conflict but also a means to end it. Additionally, as the example of the Siwa Lima Museum in Indonesia illustrated, it is important to underscore the common background. The museum functions as a meeting point for people from various communities. Art creates a space for people and communities to meet and interact. Therefore, the importance, and impact of, community art should be taken into account when reading a conflict and looking for ways towards a peaceful solution of the conflict.


3. Thirdly, experience learnt how important it is to involve institutions, councils, partnerships, public/private sector, as everyone is somehow connected to the cultural realm.. It is of the essence to find neutral places or platforms for people to get together, to start the dialogue. This can be achieved by getting the various players in the culture sector involved, both public and private. This can be done in cooperation with established or newly formed institutions and partnerships. Also, after the end of a conflict or disaster, culture is not high on a government’s agenda and most of the time it is the private sector that keeps it alive. Networking is a valuable instrument, both national and international. Even though any suggestions and possible solutions have to be carried by the local community, international working relationships can help to bring those along. There is a need for a strategic framework to guide the interventions and also to access international assistance. Because even if international funds are available, not everyone speaks the language that is needed to make a successful application. In line with this, a legal framework is essential and not only to revive and reconstruct the cultural sector but also at the outset, when thinking about (military) interventions at times of conflict or disaster. Reconstruction should be done on solid ground, ambiguity should be excluded. An analysis of the cultural sector might help with this. And next to good intentions, cooperation and legal framework, financial commitment should be there. Many good ideas cannot be carried out due to a lack of funding, or more specifically, long term funding. The same goes for commitment.


4. The cases also confirmed that capacity building is an essential part of post-conflict and post-disaster situations. In order to ensure a sustainable cultural sector, training, and especially peer training needs to be provided. And next to the intellectual training, there should also be attention for technical training. It is not enough to bring in (new) equipment, people need to learn how to use it properly. The need for cultural knowledge does not only apply to the professionals in the field. Often there is neither knowledge nor cultural training present by the people in power concerning culture. It is rare that the person responsible for the cultural policy on behalf of the new government has a cultural background. So when talking about capacity building it should not only relate to the people working in the field but also in policy making and government.

5. It is evident that economics are also part of the picture. The market for cultural property is growing still, and during time of conflict sites can be specifically targeted to illegally obtain this heritage. Besides looting art objects for their artistic value, they are also traded for the economic profit as it is a way to finance arms. We all have to be aware that the looting of cultural objects and the illicit trade go hand-in-hand with conflict, the most recent example being Iraq. The creation of a heritage police, as done in Cambodia, can be a way to combat the illegal trade in cultural objects. On a more positive note, culture can be used as a means to generate the income via revitalisation of the crafts. One means to this end may be micro credits and subsidies. By engaging the art market, jobs are created, income generated but also this part of the culture is kept alive. Thus all efforts should be done to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural objects and special attention should be given to crafts revitalisation.


6. Finally, and perhaps one of the most important recommendations, an integrated approach is the basis for any sustainable future of a cultural sector as well the governing structures at large. It is important to develop more tools for cultural sector analysis and case studies concerning legal bodies like an interim council for Arts and Culture. All efforts should be coordinated, preferably via interagency programmes. After a disaster or conflict various (inter)national NGO’s come into the field, some with different mandates, and others with an overlap. This means that some areas get more attention then others and even that attempts can be counter productive as various groups, all with their own style and impact, work on a project with not necessarily the same outcomes in mind. It is therefore crucial that all the activities are coordinated by one body. unesco could take on this role in certain cases when requested to do so, as is the case for the culture activities in Iraq.

Many of these aspects which were the result of the discussion about the cases presented, converged in the discussion about the last case: a theatre project with young street children in Latin America who used to live in a gang. This project dealt and had to cope with violence, with systematic exclusion of youngsters from opportunities, and the importance of creating responsibilities. Conflict and post conflict situations cannot be separated in such situations. The youth theatre project underlined the importance of community development as a process, allowing for time for inter group dynamics without shying away for conflicts; and providing opportunities for the young people to talk and reflect upon their situation. Conflicts cause social disruption and it is hard for people to feel connected to each other on a community basis. The project allowed for an emotional way of cultural expression, while working on artistic values. That artistic value of the performance, which resulted into an international tour, turned the youngsters into citizens with identity documents. And that was more than just an administrative step forward.

ANNEX I – programme

09.00 – 09.30

Registration and welcome

09.30 –09.40


Ms Susan Legêne,

Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO

09.40 – 10.20

Session 1: Relief

Role of the (international) armed forces in PCPD situations

Mr Robèrt Gooren,

Cultural Affairs & Information

Army Command Support Group Royal Netherlands Army

Ms Tamar Teneishvili,

UNESCO Culture Programme Specialist for Iraq, Jordan and Syria

10.20 – 10.40 Coffee and tea break

10.40 – 12.00

Session 2: Reconstruction

Rehabilitation of Somali culture

Mr Burama Sagnia,

acp cultural observatory, Brussels

Musea / Indonesia

Role of cultural institutions in PCPD situations

Mr Jerry Matitaputty,

Museum Siwa Lima Ambon


Mr Wim Manuhutu,

Moluks Historisch Museum

12.00 – 13.30 Lunch Break

13.30 – 15.00

Session 3: Community Development

Art in Connection to reconciliation, the case of South Africa

Mr Clifford Charles,


Huellas, theatre project about violence in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala

Role of artistic productions in PCPD situations

Ms Lies Joosten,

Coordinator of Arte Accion Honduras / Maraca Network of Central América

15.00 – 15.30 Coffee and tea break

15.30 – 17.00

Plenary discussion: summary of issues raised and development of critical points for the international research and policy agenda

17.00 – 18.00 Drinks
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