Italy wins G7 backing for U.N. peacekeeping force for culture

ROME (Reuters) - The G7 group of rich nations committed on Friday to pursuing the creation of a U.N. peacekeeping force to protect world heritage sites from destruction in conflict and combating the trafficking of plundered treasures.

FILE PHOTO: Graffiti sprayed by Islamic State militants which reads "We remain" is seen on a stone at the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadik/File Photo

Destroying antiquities at heritage sites like the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and the shrines of Timbuktu in Mali has increasingly become a tactic of war for groups like Islamic State, both to feed propaganda and profit from smuggling, the United Nations says.

The G7 nations -- Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Britain, the United States and Italy -- signed an accord in the Italian city of Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, to strengthen international collaboration to protect cultural heritage.

Armed U.N. peacekeepers deployed in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria are commonly known as “Blue Helmets”.

Italy has put together a unit of Italian “blue helmets of culture” active in areas where the United Nations has humanitarian operations. The culture ministry said Friday’s accord included a commitment to enable such restorers and art experts to join missions in conflict zones.

Even so, it is not clear how exactly such an addition to a peacekeeping unit might operate.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted its first ever resolution focusing on cultural heritage, in which it called on states to step up the fight against the looting and trafficking of archaeological, religious and other cultural artifacts.

Italy, which is hosting G7 meetings this year, set up a special police force in 1969 to track down stolen artifacts and artworks, which are often smuggled abroad.

Since then, the force has recovered some 800,000 artifacts stolen in Italy, which has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said Italy wanted “to make culture an instrument of dialogue between nations.”

Asked ahead of the Florence meeting how others had reacted to his plan to introduce culture to the G7 agenda in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to cut funding for the arts, Franceschini said Italy had met with “a lot of openness”.

Reporting by Isla Binnie; editing by Richard Lough