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An Interview with Christian Manhart, UNESCO’s Chief Section of Museums and Cultural Objects

You talked during your speech about the utility of culture in conflict mediation due to its consideration as a non-political element. But what is the UNESCO’s procedure when, in contrast, culture is used with certain political aims?

We use the fact that culture is considered non-political by many people, but it is very political of course. We have seen this with the destruction of the Bridge of Mostar (Serbia) or the Bamiyan Statues (Afghanistan). What the UNESCO does is to use cultural projects to bring together people that previously were fighting against again, and groups that would never talk to each other for political or economic project. We use culture for reconciliation.

In a number of articles, you argue that the conservation of cultural heritage sites can play a determining role in reconciling communities, both on a national and regional basis. Why is it that cultural heritage sites can help to foster a sense of national identity?

Because the conservation of cultural heritage is not only valuable in itself, it is also valuable for national reconciliation. It acts as a vector for social cohesion by bringing together different groups in society, be it social, cultural, religious, ethnic groups etc. in order to work together for the conservation of heritage. It is also a vector for economic development by providing training, job opportunities, and by creating the basis for future culture tourism in the country by restoring monuments.

What happens when it is precisely a cultural heritage site that is the trigger of a conflict among different religious or ethnic communities, as is the example in Jerusalem?

In the case of Jerusalem, I am in charge of two projects in the old town. One is the restoration of the manuscripts of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the other one is the revitalization of the Islamic Museum on the Haram al-Sharif and its collection. In these projects we do not work directly with Israeli authorities, but of course they have to be involved. We involve the stakeholder, the Palestinian authorities and the religious one. We also have to work with the Jordanian authority, because this part is still officially Jordan. In this case we have not put them in contact with the Muslim stakeholders, but we would not be able to develop a project in the middle of Israel without including the Israeli authorities. We have a very close contact with all of them separately.

You have worked with UNESCO not only in Central Asia, but also in African countries in conflict. Do those regions share common problems and is the approach the same in all cases? What would you say are the most important concerns when it comes to the task of safeguarding cultural heritage sites?

In Africa there are less heritage sites than in other regions. It has a more important intangible heritage, old traditions, music, ceremonies, but it also has very important museum objects. Unfortunately, since even prior to the 19th century, most of them are no longer in Africa anymore. This is the main concern. For instance, in Afghanistan itself it is very important to include culture in all respects for (social) reconciliation, as was the case in Mostar or can be in any other conflict in the world.

You have been developing different UNESCO’s projects in Afghanistan since 1989. Which lessons have you learn through more than ten years working in a country that has passed that has experienced different kinds of conflicts?

In Afghanistan we have faced almost all kind of problems. We had logistical and basic equipment problems. For example, the Ministry of Culture and Information was a building that had no glass in the windows. The first thing we did was to restore the building by providing it with furniture, computers, telephones etc. We provided training to the people, because they were not being able to work during more than 20 years of war. We also provided them with an international context so that they are again included in the cultural heritage world. Of course, we faced also security problems: working close to mine fields. As well the entire society within Afghanistan had to be rebuilt. There were a lot of former enemies who did not want to work together so, we had to convince them otherwise. The lessons learned are firstly that there are issues in Afghanistan that cannot be dealt with within one or two years; if you really want to achieve something you need to think in the long-term. Secondly, there is a real need to create interpersonal relations between you and your partners as well as to bring partners together.

Regarding cultural heritage management in conflict or post-conflict regions. You highlighted the importance of working together with the local population when developing projects. On the other hand, many of the participants during the Afghanistan part of the Symposium agreed that the International community has spent too much time working with the wrong strategy in the country. Now there is an attempt at reconstruction at all levels, politically, socially, logistically. Do you think that it is maybe too late to win the Afghan population’s trust with regards to the international community and institutions?

It is never too late. Of course the Afghan population has lost a lot of trust in international institutions, they only want to trust us again and for us to help them to solve their problems. In that sense, the international community should change its approach and fight against the extreme misery in which the majority of the population live. We see so many young people who leave Afghanistan as refugees to western countries.

How do you bring back these people who are qualified to work, but living abroad given the conditions in the country are still not providing future hope or security to its citizens?

There are many movements to bring refugees back to Afghanistan, but most of these people are very disappointed with the current situation in the country. Indeed we have less security than five years ago. For example, the people are now richer than before.

In concrete terms, how has the work of organization such as UNESCO facilitated Afghanistan’s path towards stability in the past, and how do you see these organization functioning in the future?

Extremely important steps have been made in Afghanistan in areas like education, and communication. We did a lot to bring the media back to the country. This, for example, has worked very well. Now there are several private media organisations such as, television, radio, and newspapers within Afghanistan. At first the work was begun by the UNESCO Communication Sector in 2002. They did a lot of groundwork for the protection of cultural heritage bearing in mind the importance of cultural identity. We have achieved quite a lot but we have to continue, it is a long-term work.

There is a fear as well that the new companies which are fostering the private sector in Afghanistan could be a threat to the national identity and culture. Do you agree with this?

Not all come from abroad. There are also very rich Afghans who live abroad. Yet now they come to Afghanistan to make businesses. Many of these businesses are mergers between Afghans and international companies. Of course there are also international companies working on their own, but it is necessary they invest in Afghanistan, because they also provide training and employment opportunities to the people. Not all these enterprises are from the U.S or European countries. They are also from neighboring countries such as Iran or Pakistan. So there is a mix. I am involved in one in charge of cultural issues, and personally believe that that any investment in Afghanistan is positive, and that it has a positive impact on the peace process.

This interview took place in June 2010 during the CULTURAL DIPLOMACY Simposium 2010 hosted by the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin (Germany). Actualmente Christian Manhart es Jefe de Representaciñon de la UNESCO en Nepal.

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