Recovering from cultural devastation

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Posted by Sadie from D006067.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Thursday, May 29, 2003 at 8:38PM :

Nature 423, 465 (29 May, 2003)

Recovering from cultural devastation

Leaders of the world's scientific community must act with more speed and determination to help reconstruct Iraq.

In central Baghdad, Iraq's National Library and National Archives lie ransacked and burnt to the ground, under the noses of coalition troops. The Bush administration's disrespect for a basic precept of the prosecution of war the preservation of cultural heritage has led to the unnecessary loss of much of the record of 10,000 years of history. Baghdad's Iraqi National Museum, the world's finest collection on earliest human civilization, has been plundered. So too have its universities (see page 468).

Military schools will no doubt teach that the United States' technological superiority in battle significantly reduced 'collateral damage' in terms of civilian lives. They might also discuss the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which the United States has not ratified.

With lives being lost, why should one care about science and culture? Because wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt. Amid the pressing humanitarian needs, the international community must help to reconstruct the training of the next generation to lead Iraq. The immediate priority is to put the universities back on their feet. International scientific collaboration must then use the full 'shock and awe' of civilian science and technology to protect public health, secure water resources, and rebuild infrastructure and the economy. So far, the international community has been mute in this regard, and the United Nations agency charged with science, UNESCO, has been slow and ineffective.

That must change, and fast. The top priority is to establish the state of infrastructure and the most pressing needs. A conference, perhaps under the auspices of UNESCO, could bring together Iraqi scientists and outside organizations. At the same time, individual scientists and their institutions can reach out to their counterparts in Iraq.

The Bush leadership intends to purge science of Ba'ath Party members, but it should remember that despite widespread nepotism at senior levels, allegiance was often token. Many decent scientists who can help to rebuild Iraq were Ba'ath Party members out of pragmatism. They must be recruited for the reconstruction that lies ahead.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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