Following ISIS’ attack and destruction of the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, Italy and the United Nations have joined forces to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones, AP reports. The newly appointed task force’s goal is to keep ancient artifacts, works of art and archaeological sites safe from destruction or theft by extremists.

A member of ISIS destroying an ancient Assyrian lamassu (screenshot from an ISIS propaganda video).
Image via hyperallergic

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova met in Rome today and signed an agreement creating the Peacekeepers of Culture. This 60-person-strong Italian task force will include art historians and Italian-trained restoration experts; the muscle behind all their know-how will be drawn from Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police force (including members from the art-theft police squad) who have long been in the vanguard of fighting looted artwork and artifacts trafficking.

“We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture,” Bokova said at the signing ceremony.

The Peacekeepers of Culture “could be in the future one of the essential components in the fight against terrorism,” Gentiloni added.

The agreement also calls for the establishment of a training center in Turin, northern Italy, where the task force will train cultural heritage protection experts. Besides guarding sites against looting and hampering cultural trafficking, their aim will be to  “assess risk and quantify damage done to cultural heritage sites, develop action plans and urgent measures, provide technical supervision and training for local national staff,” the Italian ministry states. If necessary, the Peacekeepers will help with moving culturally-valuable items to safety from areas of conflict.

While protecting against “cultural cleansing” and the fear-mongering propaganda that comes with it, the task force also hopes to cut off some of the Islamic State’s funds acquired through the sale of looted artifacts, statues, and other antiquities on the black market.

The task force hasn’t yet chosen a country for its first mission, but its members “are already operational and ready to go where UNESCO sends them,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

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