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United Nations' culture and education agency raises concerns for Haiti's cultural treasures

January 31, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Church The United Nations' culture and education agency called Friday for a ban on trading in artifacts from Haiti to prevent the pillaging of cultural treasures in the aftermath of the island nation's devastating earthquake.

The director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the agency is launching a campaign to protect art collections in the Caribbean country's damaged museums as well as its historical sites "so that we don't find these objects in Christie's tomorrow."

The U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization launched the appeal after learning "a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan," where cultural objects were looted after the U.S.-led invasions.

"This time, we're trying to be involved in the very beginning," Bokova said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, a gathering of international business and political leaders in the Swiss resort of Davos.

"We need to address this immediate problem .... otherwise somebody will say tomorrow, 'Where was the U.N. when this happened?"' she said.

Bokova appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for security forces to protect Haitian heritage sites and urged a Security Council resolution temporarily banning trade in Haitian cultural property, to be monitored by Interpol.

She stressed the need to verify the provenance of cultural property, especially items purchased over the Internet.

"This heritage is an invaluable source of identity and pride for the people on the island and will be essential to the success of their national reconstruction," she said in a statement.

Among the landmarks UNESCO wants to protect from looting are the heavily damaged presidential palace and cathedral in Port-au-Prince and buildings in Jacmel, a 17th century French colonial town that Haiti wants put on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was widely condemned as a preventable tragedy. Serious damage was also inflicted on Babylon, as troops drove heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozed hilltops and dug trenches through one of the world's greatest archaeological sites.

The National Museum of Afghanistan last year unveiled hundreds of looted artifacts, some dating as far back as the 11th century, seized from smugglers trying to sell them on Europe's black market. As lawlessness grows in the ancient mountain passes and along Silk Road routes, conservationists say looters are increasingly raiding sites that are unprotected and unnoticed.

In Haiti, Bokova said, UNESCO is also working on getting children back into school after the earthquake as soon as possible.

"Education brings a type of normalcy," she said.

--Associated Press

Photo: "You have to question your faith, but hopefully not lose it," a Haitian seminarian said of the earthquake that destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral of Port-au-Prince. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.

View a panoramic picture of the cathedral.