December 6, 2022

Statement by the Permanent Representative of Cyprus Ambassador Sotos Zackheos to the General Assembly on Cultural Heritage

Mr. President,

The report of the Secretary-General on the Return or Restitution of Cultural Properties to the Countries of Origin, delivers a hopeful message that much of what was needed to done, is being done, and that the important efforts of protecting cultural properties are well on the way to bearing fruitful results. For this hopeful picture, UNESCO and its Director-General deserve to be commended.

Certainly, not all the provisions and goals set by the General Assembly resolutions have been implemented. We are gratified, however, by the progress report of UNESCO doc. A/52/211, dated 6/25/97 and especially by its account of the results of the holding of the Ninth Special Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for promoting the Return of Cultural Properties, as well as by the adoption of 8 recommendations as contained in Appendix I of the above report.

We commend UNESCO’s efforts to promote bilateral negotiations for the return or restitution of cultural property as a matter of cultural continuity and justice, the preparation of inventories of movable cultural properties, the dissemination of information to the public, and the efforts for establishing a code of ethics for art dealers, auction houses and galleries.

Similarly, we note in the report the coming into force of the UNIDROIT Convention and of the efforts to improve existing international Conventions for the protection of the world cultural properties and agree that our goal should be centered on increasing the number of ratifications and providing technical assistance to States with acute problems of illicit trafficking in archeological objects, as well as in aiding countries with armed conflicts.

It is very correctly stated in the report that the return or restitution of cultural and artistic treasures to the country of origin, contributes to the strengthening of international cooperation. The establishment of an international fund to facilitate the restitution of stolen property will be of great practical assistance to these member states.

Mr. President,

Our interest in the subject emanates from our desire to communicate again with the international community and to seek its solidarity and assistance for the preservation of the cultural identity in the occupied areas of Cyprus.

The policy of the occupying power to change the demographic and cultural history and character of Cyprus by the importation of settlers and the destruction, desecration and pillage especially of places of worship caused by the 1974 invasion, constitute a continuous hemorrhage of our cultural heritage.

To highlight the immensity of the destruction, I cite herebelow some figures:

some 15,000 to 20,000 icons have been removed.

several dozens major frescoes and mosaics dating from the 6th century A.D. to the 15th century have been segmented for sale abroad.

several thousand antiquities and individual objects of historical interest from chalices, crosses, wooden carvings, bibles, etc. have disappeared.

Precious and unique mosaics such as those of the church of Panayia Kanakaria, Antiphonitis Monastery and the Chapel of Ayios Themonianos have been removed from their original places and illegally exported and sold by antiquities smugglers to private collectors abroad.

As recently as a month ago, stolen Cypriot church objects, such as frescoes, icons, ancient pottery and statues were discovered by the German police in Munich in the residence of a Turkish “archeologist” art smuggler. The recovery included over 100 valuable pieces of art from the 6th to 15th century.

The Government and church of Cyprus spare no effort or money in seeking to recover, even buy back, whatever Cyprus antiquities could be salvaged. In this endeavour, we are grateful to those institutions and international organizations for their cooperation and assistance for the discovery and return of many significant cultural treasures.

The first major victory occurred with the return to Cyprus, following a civil case in the United States of four mosaics originating from the Kanakaria Church dating 525 A.D. The mosaics are now exhibited in the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia. Nevertheless, despite the assistance of organizations, including UNESCO, the International Council of Museums and Sites, Europa Nostra, Interpol, the Council of Europe, devoted curators and scholars throughout the world, a vast number of objects and artifacts remain in wrong hands. We are faced with an uphill battle since we still have no control over the fate of our cultural heritage in our own territory in the occupied part of the Republic. This territory includes the largest part of the Island’s archeological and historical sites; the Venetian walls of Famagusta, the medieval castles of Kyrenia, the archeological sites of Salamis, Mycenean Engomi churches and monasteries, built between the 4th and 11th centuries, as well as Neolithic bronze, Phoenician, Greek and Roman sites, are places of immense historical values.

We hope that the United Nations, through its specialized Agencies, will continue to contribute towards increasing the awareness of the International Community to the importance of safeguarding the cultural heritage of Cyprus and in fact of all states. The archeological treasures of states are treasures of the world. Their loss will be a loss of mankind and of the global culture.

As to those who attempt to destroy the cultural heritage of States, the words of Euripides echo through the ages as a stern warning “fool is the one who sacks a city making a desert of temples, pillaging the tombs, the sanctuaries of dead; for he prepares his own doom in times to come”.

Thank you, Mr. President