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“Saving Cultural Heritage in Crisis Areas”, U.S. Ambassador Thorne’s Remarks at the American Academy in Rome

Rome, November 4, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure for me to speak with you today about such an important and timely subject – the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in war zones.  And it is gratifying to see assembled here so many of the individuals who play a direct and active role in this work and who are truly the leaders in this field.

As we are all too sadly aware, conflicts jeopardize both the precious lives of people as well as the cultural heritage of nations.  Archaeological discovery and artistic treasures are vital elements of the human experience and should not be thoughtlessly sacrificed for either ideological or military expediency.  During World War II and since, U.S. military planning has taken account of cultural sites in seeking to limit damage - alas, not always successfully.  But these days the threat to cultural heritage comes as much from within as from without.  As we witnessed with horror, small minds sometimes perpetrate outrageous acts of violence against the cultural patrimony of humankind.  The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan is one of the most notable such atrocities.

The United States takes our responsibility to preserving and supporting world cultural sites very seriously, and we have devoted tens of millions of dollars to this endeavor.  For example in Afghanistan, we have invested over $10M in protection of such sites as the National Museum of Afghanistan, mosques, historic buildings and archaeological sites throughout the country.  In Iraq, U.S. Government support totals over $20M and helps fund the Iraq Cultural Heritage and Future of Babylon projects.  Likewise, in other countries where conflicts or turmoil have created dangerous situations for the maintenance of cultural heritages, we have stepped in to assist in protecting the patrimony that belong not only to these ridden and shattered communities but to the whole of humanity.

So, the theme of today’s conference is timely and pertinent.  Italy, certainly, is at the fore of protection and preservation of an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage.  The U.S. Embassy has worked alongside our Italian partners to ensure the protection of Italian cultural and archeological goods, and has helped recover them when looted objects end up on the international market or in the hands of American institutions or private collections.  Our close and very productive collaboration with a superbly trained unit of the Carabinieri has successfully returned many such recovered treasures to Italy and to the proper Italian authorities.  Let me publicly recognize General Pasquale Muggeo, who leads this specialized Carabinieri unit and who is an exceptional partner in implementing the Memorandum of Understanding restricting the import of illicit archaeological material renewed by our two governments in 2011.

This collaboration has produced outstanding results.  We hope its successes can serve as a model for productive collaboration with other countries, including those delegations represented here today.   Let me commend the American Academy in Rome, itself an institution forging strong cultural relations between the United States and Italy, for organizing an event that discusses such an important topic.

My gratitude goes, therefore, to the organizers, Professor Brian Rose and Dr. Laurie Rush, and to the President of the Academy, Dr. Adele Chatfield-Taylor, and the Director, Dr. Christopher Celenza, for confronting the problem and allowing us to generate new ideas and forward thinking strategies to protect our cultural heritage from the ravages of war.  Thank you and buon lavoro!