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

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | January 6, 2020

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.

Armenian Monastery of Saint Thaddeus, a world and cultural heritage site in northwestern Iran. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.


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

  1. Rosemary Joyce you are my Hero! You have reminded America of the moral obligation that we, the people, have in order to form a more perfect union. Government policy makers are obligated to ask themselves the moral questions and make public their answer. Thank you for making your stance and for not pulling any of your punches. I hear you and stand up to salute you. Praise The Lord – AMEN

  2. Thank you for maintaining your moral stance in this incredible time. I strongly support your decision to resign.

    My sincere thanks for your personal commitment to the ethics of global and national heritage

  3. Prof. Joyce, I wish to thank you, Carol Christ and Alison Gopnik for your dedication to informing, educating and motivating We The People to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations. Never, never, never give up.

  4. Pentagon Rules Out Striking Iranian Cultural Sites, Contradicting Trump

    “Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that striking the sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president.”

    Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman
    NY Times
    Jan. 6, 2020, 8:19 p.m. ET


    “If you panic that’s a good way to lose.
    You have to stay in control.”

    –Ted Turner

    • A panic is a sign of overuse of xanax! There’s a phallanx over this bridge of troubled waters….Hopefully there won’t be many slaughters where we’ll have distressful daughters of the Iranian Revolution….That doesn’t stack up to our U.S. Constitution. But evil shouldn’t come to fruition! I know it was a risque mission because we are in a different world position. From many theres a hissin! Unfortunately no kissin’! That’s what we’re missin’!

  5. Thank you for maintaining your ethical stance in this unbelievable time. I strongly support your decision to resign.

    My sincere thanks for your personal commitment to the ethics of global and national cultural heritage.

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