A new role for NATO in conflict zones

One year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, PIK Professor Lynn Meskell calls on the alliance to take a more expansive view of cultural property protection.

Lynn Meskell, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the Weitzman School of Design recently returned from a trip to Brussels, where she presented her latest research on heritage conflict at UNESCO World Heritage sites and post-conflict reconstruction to NATO. Meskell is the Richard D. Green Professor of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and curator in the Middle East and Asia sections at the Penn Museum.

Lynn Meskell standing in front of a glass display case at the Penn Museum.
Lynn Meskell is the Richard D. Green Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the graduate program in Historic Preservation in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and a curator in the Middle East and Asia sections at the Penn Museum. (Image: Eric Sucar)

Her book, “A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace” (Oxford, 2018), reveals UNESCO’s early forays into a one-world archaeology and its later commitments to global heritage.

“There’s intense interest in cultural heritage protection right now—and that it must be thought of in terms of NATOS’s programs on human security and the protection of civilians. This is largely because of the war in Ukraine, but it can be traced back to the rise of Islamic State in 2014 and also NATO countries’ own challenges with heritage in conflict since the end of the Cold War,” Meskell says. “There is an enormous push for NATO to create its own policy on how to view cultural property, in terms of protection, not just prioritizing monuments and objects, but to recognize the broader significance of heritage for communities and their futures.”

Meskell outlines ways that NATO can engage with local communities differently. “When NATO engages, for instance, through their training missions in Iraq or Kosovo, they need to consider the highly contentious politics of cultural heritage,” she says. “One of my recommendations is that NATO needs more local information and understanding. I used the example of the Arab Barometer Project, which I’m involved with colleagues at Princeton and Ben Isakhan in Australia. Together we surveyed 1600 people in Mosul and 1600 people in Aleppo to ask them exactly these questions.”

“What are the most important sites for you? What would you like to see reconstructed? Who should do the work?” she asks. “In terms of their destruction, which of the sites concerned you the most? It is not archaeological museums. Many of these residents have never been to the museum. Rather, it’s local and community-based sites and shrines, the souks and marketplaces, the old cities of Mosul and Aleppo. These are places of social, economic and spiritual regeneration. They are also places where multiple religions can and do interact. So we have to think about the peace building and future development, and not pick the sites that we in the US, Europe or elsewhere are most interested in.”

Homepage image: Gina Haney.

Read more at Weitzman School of Design.