Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

When the U.S. abandons protection of cultural sites, we must act

By Rosemary Joyce

Armenian Monastery of Saint Thaddeus, a cultural heritage site in northwestern Iran.

When the U.S. threatens to abandon the international consensus on protection of cultural sites, as an archaeologist and a citizen I must act, even if action is limited to raising a voice in protest.

Armenian Monastery of Saint Thaddeus, a cultural heritage site in northwestern Iran.

Today I tendered my resignation from the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the U.S. State Department on requests from other countries to help protect their heritage from illicit trafficking. When I was offered appointment, I had to balance the promise of contributing to combatting looting with my own critique of treating “heritage” as national and cosmopolitan, rather than local, familial, and relevant first to descendant communities.

I also had to assess this potential service in light of my public activism against U.S. foreign policy, with its easy militarization of foreign relations, tolerance or encouragement of authoritarian governments, and use of extra-judicial killing by drone strikes.

And that was in the administration of President Barack Obama.

I decided to accept my appointment because it was clear then that the State Department offices carrying out these duties were supported in keeping the U.S. engaged with commitments under international conventions, some products of the second world war. I accepted reappointment by President Obama even after the election of a new administration about which I had no confidence whatsoever.

In the past three years, despite well publicized attrition in the diplomatic corps and the impact of an administration that called for massive cuts in State Department resources, our committee has continued to expand US commitments to heritage preservation.

Particularly notable have been actions in relation to countries affected by conflict in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean— areas where U.S. foreign policy has contributed to unsettled conditions. These have fueled trafficking and sometimes encouraged self-serving arguments by collectors that movement of antiquities into collections outside the impacted countries might actually be doing good.

Until this weekend, I could say that, despite these histories and tensions, the U.S. government maintained commitments to international conventions and global expectations to prevent harm to cultural sites.

With a tweet suggesting targeting of Iranian cultural sites, and a statement to media explicitly disclaiming these legal obligations, the situation changed. The refusal of the Secretary of State to explicitly reject these statements compounded these destructive messages. That silence undercuts the process I was part of, creating a challenge to maintain U.S. legitimacy as a force opposing destruction of cultural heritage.

This made it impossible for me to continue as a participant in this process.

Resigning might be seen as an empty gesture, particularly since my last term has ended and I have been told I am being replaced. Materially, it means I will not participate in an already scheduled review this month of new inter-governmental agreements. But I am not indispensable; I don’t make the mistake of thinking my action will shake this administration.

What it does is what any citizen can do— makes clear a refusal to accept unethical, indeed, immoral actions by the U.S. government.

I will hope for a better future and a government recommitted to values I can endorse. I will work for that future and know everyone I have worked with in this role, now ended, will do so as well.