The international protection of cultural heritage in times of conflict: efficient or deficient? By Rim Lababidi

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Copyright Hussein Malla

Cultural heritage, in both its tangible and intangible forms, constitutes a record of the creativity of mankind, and it functions as a line of continuity for human beings as well as the representation of their past and present. As cultural heritage accompanies people throughout their life, it shares people’s faith in the prosperity of peacetimes and the scourge of wars.
Conflicts can be defined as: “situation in which actors use conflict behaviour against each other to attain incompatible goals and/or to express their hostility", and the more developed the dynamics and tools of wars are, the more destructive their impact becomes on states resources, people’s lives and cultural heritage (Bartos and Wehr, Using Conflict Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2002).
In terms of specifically cultural properties, armed conflicts impose different types of damage, such as:
1- Deterioration and weathering due to lack of the needed sources and/or accessibility to maintain cultural properties 2- Collateral damage due to military operations, or intentional targeting once they are used as military bases. An example of this is the destruction of the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo after it became a base for the regime’s snipers. 3- Intentional targeting by groups intending to damage the racial, national or religious symbols of others or to impose specific ideologies. This is the case of the destruction of shrines by the Islamic fundamentalist group ISIS in both of Iraq and Syria 4- Illicit excavations and trade of antiquities by organised networks, which often causes irreversible damage to the material culture, as in the case of the archaeological sites of southern Iraq and Syria. 5- Use by people to survive the harsh conditions of war. For example, the Roman tombs of the dead cities of northern Syria are used as shelters by families who lost their houses in the conflict. Likewise, in Idlib, a governorate in Syria, 600 people are making a living by providing antiquity dealers with coins they find in their lands ('Arja 2014).
The unfortunate loss of cultural heritage reflects on the identity of the people, their social cohesion and their economic state, especially where heritage acts as a living hub for people, such as the historic centre of Aleppo.
Therefore, protecting cultural heritage and counteracting the subversive impact of conflicts has become a major concern for the international community during the last century.

The protection of cultural heritage

The acknowledgment of the significance of cultural heritage and the need to protect it started to develop as early as the 18th century and it was internationally promoted following World War I (1914-1918) through conferences, such as the Athens Conference of 1931. The later tragic destruction of the European cultural properties following the Second World War (1939-1945), triggered the efforts to regulate a systematic protection for cultural heritage worldwide. Accordingly, the intergovernmental United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) was founded in 1945, and it became internationally acknowledged as the leading organisation to preserve and protect cultural heritage. To support UNESCO in its mission, several specialised partner-bodies were found in the following years.
During the past sixty years, UNESCO has regulated a holistic and compatible set of guidelines for the preservation and maintenance of cultural properties and it has always stressed the moral responsibility of states to comply with these measures. Among its guidelines, UNESCO has specifically addressed the protection of cultural heritage in times of conflict through legally binding conventions for their state-parties. They are explained below:
1- The 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its first (1954) and second (1999) protocols that proscribe using cultural properties for military purposes, committing reprisal or intentional targeting (UNESCO 1954, article 3, 4). The first protocol encourages its state-parties to introduce specialist personnel into their armies in order to coordinate with the civilian bodies responsible for heritage and it suggests setting military regulations that can contribute to safeguarding cultural heritage (UNESCO 1954, article 7). A voluntary-based fund was founded with the second protocol, and that can be used through UNESCO to respond to emergency situations (UNESCO 1999, article 29). And the same protocol proposes a tentative claim to isolate political decisions from decisions related to preserving heritage (UNESCO 1999, article 30). 2- The 1972 Convention on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Sites, for which a cultural inventory and fund were established to better protect sites of an outstanding value and to assist damaged listed sites or those in danger of being damaged (UNESCO 1972, article 11, 15). 3- The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which encourages the state-parties to undertake preventive measures against the illicit import and export of cultural properties. Also, it calls the state-parties to compel with the restitution provisions of the convention (UNESCO 1970). 4- The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage UNESCO 2001 that calls for the restitution of illicitly recovered underwater cultural heritage in addition to cooperating with other state-parties and settling the disputes between them (UNESCO 2001).
Furthermore, in 1970, an attempt to create an association between cultural heritage and human rights started when UNESCO held a conference titled “Cultural Rights as Human Rights” (UNESCO 1970). This notion was further emphasised when the international community adopted the term “cultural heritage” instead of “cultural properties” in the 1972 Convention on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Sites (UNESCO 1972) in order to stress the humanitarian significance of cultural heritage. Furthermore, in 1998, following the cultural genocides that were committed in the Balkans during the ethnical war that ravaged the region (1991-1995), the international and national efforts were intertwined to enhance the protection of cultural property by listing belligerent acts against cultural properties as war crimes in the International Criminal Court and to ensure that perpetrators were to be prosecuted by the competent international bodies (ICC 1998, article 8(2) (a) (iv)). Indeed this resolution was applied later in Cambodia and the Balkans through competent tribunals.

A Problematic implementation

Tragic events in areas such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and currently Syria have proved the poor results of the tremendous efforts paid by the international community, especially UNESCO, to apply protective measures that would save cultural heritage from the horrific violations of war.
These conflicts have revealed that the previously mentioned conventions lack an adequate sanction system to compel their state-parties to better implement the provisions. For example, the last two years have witnessed an extensive shelling of the World Heritage Site of Old Aleppo by the regime forces, despite the fact that the Syrian government ratified the first protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention in 1954. Another factor contributing to the deficiency of the protection of cultural heritage is the politicising of heritage. Cultural heritage has been recruited to play a major role in conflicting political agendas in order to make political, ethnical or religious gains.
Another problem is the “risk-avoiding” attitude adopted by UNESCO and its partners in their response to the critical condition of cultural heritage during armed conflicts, an issue that was extensively discussed by Kila in his 2013 paper from the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies: “Reactive , or Pro-active? Cultural Property Crimes in the Context of Contemporary Armed Conflicts”. A policy that refrains from sending military-based commissions to the damaged sites to assess and document the condition of damaged cultural assets. The International Council of the Blue Shield that is considered as the “cultural equivalent to the red cross” for instance, has not been able to interfere neither in Iraq nor currently in Syria.


A debate about the protection of cultural heritage in times of armed conflict has been triggered among heritage specialists during the last two decades and calls for enforcing the protection of cultural heritage are increasing. However, these calls cannot be met unless UNESCO and its partners step up to meet their responsibilities as the umbrella under which the protection of cultural heritage is regulated. Such a step demands making decisions regardless of any political influence in addition to undertaking a rigorous analysis of the previous incidents where international treaties failed and still are failing to protect our cultural heritage, and cultural genocides are being reported repeatedly. This analysis can facilitate identifying the weaknesses and gaps within the frameworks of the protective measures, and hopefully, surmounting them. Moreover, the “risk-avoiding” attitude ought to be dropped specifically by reinforcing the Blue Shield. This reienforcement can be achieved through establishing fully equipped regional centres for the Blue Shield that are supported by trained teams. This is perfectly feasible, as several cultural experts have expressed their readiness to participate in militarized missions that can intervene to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones.
Finally and most importantly, state-parties to the conventions should take a step back to reconsider their politics and set new frameworks that insure an efficient protection of cultural heritage. After all, sharing responsibilities cannot be achieved solely by formulating protective measures, but also by bearing responsibility for the negative outcome of these plans