UNESCO rebuilds Mosul landmarks as showcase for multilateral approach

Mosul needs at least $2 billion of reconstruction aid, the Iraqi government estimates.
Tuesday 18/09/2018
A view of a temple in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Hatra, south of Mosul. (AFP)
A view of a temple in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Hatra, south of Mosul. (AFP)

PARIS - The United Nations' cultural agency wants to use the reconstruction of Iraq's second city, Mosul, to restore its credibility and show how a fraying multilateral order can be revived, its director-general said.

Officially titled the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Paris-based UNESCO is best known for designating and protecting World Heritage sites, from the Galapagos Islands to the tombs of Timbuktu.

It was plunged into turmoil a year ago after the United States pulled out, striking a blow to multilateralism and raising questions over the funding of an agency founded after the second world war.

While most of its activities are uncontroversial, UNESCO has seen internal political fights among some of its 195-member states in recent years that paralysed its work, notably on issues related to the Holy Land.

Those culminated in the United States and Israel withdrawing from the organisation, accusing it of anti-Israel bias, just days ahead of the new Director-General Audrey Azoulay's appointment in October 2017.

Almost a year later, Azoulay has sought to refocus the agency on its fundamentals, with Mosul's reconstruction at the centre of that effort.

"At a time when multilateralism is sometimes being questioned, the objective and magnitude of this initiative shows exactly why an organisation like UNESCO is important," Azoulay said ahead of a conference in Paris on Mosul.

Working with the Iraqi government, UNESCO wants to position itself as the go-to coordinator to rebuild some of the city's landmarks that were turned to rubble by urban warfare between Islamic State militants and the US-backed coalition.

Mosul needs at least $2 billion of reconstruction aid, the Iraqi government estimates. Azoulay said she wanted to restore the city's heartbeat, diversity and history, while using UNESCO's educational programmes to combat extremism.

The agency is spearheading the restoration of the city's market, the central library at its university, two churches and a Yazidi temple.

Its biggest project, funded with $50 million from the United Arab Emirates, is restoring the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, famous for its 8-century-old leaning minaret, which was destroyed by Islamic State militants.

The political tension in Baghdad following elections, the unrest in the southern port city of Basra and security threats from the Islamic State inevitably raise questions as to how much can be achieved.

"We're fully aware of Mosul's specificities and the difficulties on the ground... but it's exactly because the situation is still fragile that we need to act," Azoulay said.

(Reuters)