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UNESCO: Ukraine war badly impacting cultural heritage

February 23, 2023

On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. In an interview with DW, Roman Luckscheiter of the German Commission for UNESCO explains how Ukrainian culture has been threatened and what can be done.

A colorful building in Odessa on a sunny day.
Image: Multipedia/Zoonar/picture alliance

Roman Luckscheiter has been the Secretary-General of the German Commission for UNESCO since 2020. In an interview with DW, he talks about what is at stake for Ukrainian culture due to the war and how it can be preserved.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Luckscheiter, one year ago Russia's attack on Ukraine began. How do you remember that day?

Roman Luckscheiter: I could hardly believe it possible in Europe, where people assume peace is a given, that suddenly we had a war.

We first thought about the people, and were soon concerned about what this would mean for education and culture in Ukraine. On the day itself we published a statement in which we strongly condemned the war. Over the next few days, 40 UNESCO national commissions from other countries joined in. We were able to send a strong signal this way.

What steps did UNESCO take afterwards?

For UNESCO, the first step was to see what is being damaged and what the state of education and culture infrastructure was. Then we asked the crucial question: 'What can we do about it?' Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, together with the Federal Foreign Office, founded the "Network for the Protection of Cultural Property in Ukraine," of which we, the German Commission for UNESCO, are a member. Civil society also became active and sent museums material to help protect cultural assets, from fire extinguishers to packaging supplies.

Ukraine railway reunites loved ones in Kherson

We quickly sought contact with the Ukrainian National Commission of UNESCO to get an overview of the situation. We then evaluated satellite data and ensured that all cultural assets were marked with a blue shield emblem to signal that they were under special observation by the international community.

Can you quantify the damage to Ukrainian cultural sites?

The number of damaged cultural sites keeps rising. So far, it's over 3,000 schools, and 200 cultural institutions, including over 100 religious sites, 18 museums, 11 libraries and historical monuments. All of which have been severely damaged.

We are especially concerned about World Heritage Sites, as well as the heritage under the Memory of the World Programme and Intangible Cultural Heritage. Structures are being destroyed that are permanently damaging living heritage — the identity of Ukraine. That's where we need to develop and provide expertise: To ask 'How do I evacuate cultural property,' 'How do I protect cultural property? and 'How do I prevent the illegal transfer of cultural property?' Education plays a central role here. Fortunately, Ukraine was already very digitized before the war. Working with Google, UNESCO provided 50,000 computers in order to assist with digital education. We also have mechanisms at UNESCO to support the free press. Recently, Odessa was put on the World Heritage List.

How did that happen?

It showed that UNESCO was quick to respond, because Odessa was put on the list of 'World Heritage in Danger' at the same time. That means the city needed additional attention, protection assistance and financial support for its reconstruction.

Safeguarding Ukrainian culture in Lviv

Were there protests from the Russian side and is there currently contact with the UNESCO Commission in Russia?

There is no contact with the UNESCO Commission of Russia or other state agencies in Russia. But it is important to us that civil society stays in contact, that a dialogue continues to exist in science and the arts. We don't want Russia's culture to enter into this conflict, because we consider the Russian language and Russian music to be great treasures that must not be affected — either during or after the war. 

What can UNESCO do for the Ukrainian artists who have fled to Germany, for example?

The question is how we keep in touch with Ukrainians working in the arts and culture sector, since in the future we will need to partner with them on reconstruction. In the future, the connection to Ukraine in the education and cultural sectors will become much stronger. This is precisely where UNESCO networks are extremely helpful.

We have established the "Contact Point for Cultural Diversity" in the German Commission for UNESCO. It monitors how those working in the arts and culture field have arrived in Germany. It examines how the wide variety of offers given to them by the government and civil society work.  We want to learn which offers and resources will be needed in the future and to see what works and what doesn't.

Will you take criminal action if there is destruction of world cultural heritage?

There is indeed cooperation between UNESCO and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This cooperation has been successful before, such as when the mausoleums were damaged in Timbuktu. The mastermind behind it was sentenced to nine years in prison and had to pay a fine of millions. This shows that the meticulous monitoring of damage by UNESCO can lead to legal consequences.

We must not forget that the heritage of humanity is at stake.

What do you see at the heart of this war, which is also being waged against culture and art?

The great danger of war is that beyond the humanitarian catastrophe, the families and childhoods which have been destroyed, a severely damaged cultural landscape is also left in its wake, and national identity is erased.

Especially in times of great conflict and trauma, culture and art serve as an instrument to help us cope, to find means of expression and enter into new dialogs.

The interview was conducted by Andrea Horakh in German.