Convinced that culture is a driver for sustainable development and peace, UNESCO is very committed to the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural diversity. Although UNESCO conventions on world tangible and intangible heritage, cultural diversity and the illicit trafficking of cultural property are well known, the efforts made by the organisation to protect cultural heritage during conflict and disasters receive international recognition today.

World heritage

The 1972 World Heritage Convention aims to better conserve outstanding cultural or natural sites in humanity’s common heritage, for the benefit of future generations.

More than 190 member states have signed the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Belgium has been one of the signatory states since 1996. On the World Heritage List there may be natural, cultural or mixed sites.

Belgium has a total of thirteen sites listed as world heritage:

Intangible cultural heritage

The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage aims to preserve and perpetuate intangible cultural heritage. This ‘living heritage’ is both a source and expression of cultural identity and diversity.

Intangible cultural heritage has various forms: From oral traditions to music and dance, rituals, festive events and social practices as well as knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe and craft-making know-how.

More than 170 member states have ratified the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Belgium is also one of the signatory states, and has been since 2006. Countries who are signatories to the convention undertake to list intangible cultural heritage in their territory and to protect it by adopting suitable measures. The convention is therefore a springboard for preserving intangible cultural heritage. Its aim is also to inspire recognition by the communities, groups and persons concerned by the value of intangible cultural heritage; to raise greater awareness among people at local, national and international level about the importance of this heritage and to generate cooperation and an international framework.

There are several inventories of intangible cultural heritage in Belgium: for Flanders, for Wallonia, for the German-speaking community and for the Brussels Region. Our country can, on the basis of these inventories, propose nominations for one of the three international lists that have been drawn up within the framework of the convention.

The first is the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity which aims to increase visibility and awareness surrounding the importance of intangible cultural heritage. This list is an instrument intended to preserve this wealth. It is also meant to reflect global cultural diversity and human creativity. The following items are on the List for Belgium:

The List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding is the second list that exists within the framework of the 2003 convention. On this list are items that the communities concerned and the signatory states consider require urgent safeguarding measures to ensure they are passed on. The entries on this List help mobilise international cooperation and assistance enabling stakeholders to take adequate safeguarding measures. Belgium does not have any items on this list.

The third list is the Register of Best Safeguarding Practices which comprises programmes, projects and activity that best reflect the convention’s principles and goals. Good protective measures are put in place through this register in order to inspire communities, experts and member states to protect their intangible cultural heritage. Belgium’s best safeguarding practices are as follows:

Note that alongside these lists, there are other activities and dynamics surrounding the 2003 convention. It also highlighted the importance of intangible cultural heritage as a source of cultural diversity and guarantee of sustainable development. It’s an instrument that especially focuses on international solidarity and cooperation as well as on dialogue and strengthening capabilities. Empowering people (intangible heritage of communities, groups and individuals) who use, invent or continue to pass on best practices surrounding heritage on a daily basis is a challenge in the constantly changing world that we know today.

Culture in conflict

The purpose of the Hague Convention (1954) and its two protocols is the protection of cultural property in war time. The Working Group on Cultural Property (under the auspices of the Interministerial Commission for Humanitarian Law) aims to apply and monitor the convention, with all the institutions and parties concerned.

The application and implementation of the Hague Convention and its two protocols are coordinated in Belgium by the Working Group on Cultural Property of the Interministerial Commission for Humanitarian Law which brings together all the institutions and parties concerned.

The convention and the first protocol (1954, ratified by Belgium in 1960) plan for the creation of national registers of protected heritage, indicated by a blue and white icon. No register of this kind has yet been drawn up by Belgium. Furthermore, the treaty provides for special protection for sites where recorded heritage is stored. Finally, it prohibits belligerent parties from misappropriating cultural property and obliges them to return stolen cultural property.

The second protocol (1999, ratified by Belgium in 2010) attempts to correct the flaws fof the 1954 convention and protocol. Therefore, it tightens the definition of certain concepts (e.g. the notion of ‘imperative military need’) and extends the convention’s scope of application to internal conflicts.

Moreover, it proposes concrete measures to strengthen the convention and its two protocols’ control. For this purpose, a Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was created. A further innovation of the second protocol is the introduction of a register of cultural property with enhanced protection in the event of armed conflict. Said committee decided, at meetings held in 2013, to record three Belgian heritage sites in the register, which are:

  • the house and studio of Victor Horta in Brussels
  • the neolithic flint mines at Spiennes in Hainaut
  • the Plantin Moretus house-museum complex in AntwerpBelgium chaired the convention committee and bureau from 2012 to 2015.

During this period it focused on the development of synergies between the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1972 World Heritage Convention

Illicit trafficking of cultural property

The illicit trafficking of cultural property is a growing phenomenon that is also a source of funding for terrorism. The 1970 UNESCO convention fights against the illegal trafficking of cultural property and for the restitution of stolen cultural property. Belgium ratified the convention in 2009.

Every day, somewhere in the world, an item of cultural property is stolen or pillaged to then be sold illegally. In 30 years, the illicit trafficking of works of art has become worryingly widespread. History has demonstrated that this phenomenon has always worsened in the event of armed conflict, whether international or internal, especially in occupations, as seen in the conflict in Syria. The trafficking of cultural property has also become an essential source of war funding for certain belligerent armed groups. In February 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously took the decision to prohibit the trade in cultural property taking place in Syria and Iraq. More recently, on 24 March 2017, the UN Security Council adopted a historic resolution that condemns the destruction of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict, in particular when it is the work of terrorist groups. The member states must also adopt measures that aim to prevent and combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property in these conflict areas.

The convention has more than 130 signatory states and requests them:

  • To adopt preventive measures such as inventories, export certificates, surveillance and cultural property trader accreditation measures, to apply penal or administrative sanctions and to lead information campaigns;
  • To make provisions for the restitution of cultural property to its country of origin, through good cooperation between the national authorities;
  • To establish international cooperation to strengthen controls over the export and import of cultural property in countries affected by its pillageIn Belgium, effective action for raising awareness by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has enabled museums to apply the Code of Ethics that prohibits museums from acquiring cultural property that has been stolen or exported illicitly.

The Creative Cities Network

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was founded in 2004 in order to connect cities that stand out due to the role played by creative industries in their development. The network enables cities to exchange their expertise and to work together at international level.

The network covers seven creative fields: popular arts and crafts, design, film, cuisine, literature, music and digital arts. The city of Ghent has been part of the network since 2009 as ‘Creative City of Music’. Courtrai has also submitted its application for design.

This network is a precious partner for UNESCO because it demonstrates how culture and creativity contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

General Trust Fund

To simplify its collaboration with UNESCO, Flanders created the Flanders UNESCO Scientific Trust Fund (FUST) and the general Flanders UNESCO Trust Fund (FUT). Managed by the Flanders Department of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with UNESCO, the FUT focuses especially on heritage and Africa.

Thanks to the resources of the general fund, Flanders contributes to cultural preservation and socio-economic development for Africa, to marine biodiversity and to the conservation of oceans and life in the cities listed as world heritage. The Fund is a real driver for sustainable development and peacebuilding.

Support to projects and activities in Africa illustrates the priority position that UNESCO has given this region. This policy complies with Flanders’s foreign policy and the bilateral contacts that the Flemish Region maintains with its partner countries in the region (Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa).

The general fund receives a budget of around €900,000 from the Flemish government every two years. Contributions through the FUT and the FUST amounted to EUR 33 million between 2000 and 2016: Flanders is therefore a very credible and constant UNESCO donor.

2005 convention on the diversity of cultural expressions

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was adopted in 2005. It recognises states’ right to lead their own cultural policy and to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions. The convention has nearly 150 signatory states.

The purpose of the Convention is to:

  • fill a gap in international law by recognising states’ sovereign right to implement cultural policies for promoting the diversity of cultural expressions;
  • recognise the special nature of cultural property and services as conveyors of identity, value and meaning;
  • strengthen international cooperation in favour of a more balanced exchange of cultural property and services between all countries, in particular by establishing an International Fund for Cultural Diversity.The reassertion in the convention of states’ sovereign right to implement their own cultural policies forms part of the context of increasing globalisation, where certain minority cultures are faced with dominant cultures.