The protection of cultural heritage

IN WAR PEOPLE get killed and things get damaged and destroyed. Yet, probably for as long as there has been conflict, many have tried to make war more humane; not only by trying to protect civilians, but also by promoting the better treatment of soldiers – the legitimate casualties of war. Think of the work of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, the Red Cross/Crescent movement, and of the growing body of international humanitarian law epitomised by the aspirations of the Geneva Conventions. Then think of the ethnic cleansing and appalling treatment of combatants and civilians in numerous conflicts across Africa in the last fifty years; the awful acts carried out in the name of current or past nation states in the former Yugoslavia; and the atrocities being witnessed today in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and many other countries.

A particular element in many of these conflicts is the deliberate destruction of cultural property belonging to the victims of war. This is often regarded as a consequence rather than a symptom of war, but it is a symptom that military theorists have argued is bad practice for over two thousand years: allow the heritage of your enemy to be destroyed, or worse, allow your own army to destroy it, and you create the first reason for the next conflict. Yet the specific targeting of the tangible evidence of communities – churches, mosques, cemeteries and other significant buildings – has increasingly become a significant aspect of much warfare. This is what Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, has called ‘cultural cleansing’. The implications are obvious: without evidence of your ever having lived here, of your traditions or culture, who is to argue you ever existed?

Many of these attacks have targeted buildings and monuments with a contemporary religious function. Again the subtext is easily read: my God is the only God; my version of our common God is the only version to be tolerated. In both cases the idolatrous buildings of ‘the other’ must be destroyed to satisfy the beliefs of the – perhaps fleetingly – dominant. This is not new: such destruction was practised in the ancient world and became endemic in the European Reformation, for example in England the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Much of such destruction is carried out by extremists who have a strong religious belief that it is not only justified, but demanded by their God. It would, however, be wrong to overlook some more prosaic aspects of their actions: the economic and political gain that goes with removing others, and with it, the anticipated social and cultural benefit of removing those who hold other beliefs in order to create a purer society.

Of course, a further chilling incarnation of such destruction is the deliberate targeting of the fragmentary remains of the more distant past: the bridge at Mostar, the shelling of the World Heritage site of Dubrovnik, the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the destruction of artefacts in the Mosul museum and of parts of the ancient city of Palmyra;1 the list goes on. For those of us left bemused by the infighting within Islam, such destruction pulls at a deep aspect of our consciousness, and such attacks strike at a perceived common ancestry, a search for common humanity. It is the same deep consciousness that allows UNESCO to create the World Heritage List made up of sites that have some undefinable but globally acknowledged ‘outstanding universal value’.

The present writer first became involved in the protection of the past in 2003 when asked, too late to do much about it, to be archaeological advisor to the Ministry of Defence immediately before the invasion of Iraq. At that point the main threat was the coming conflict’s ‘collateral’, that is, unintended, damage. Astonishingly, it emerged that the United Kingdom had not ratified the primary piece of international humanitarian law dealing with this issue: the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols. Why had this not been a common cause for concern? Equally horrifying was the fact that the Blue Shield, the international organisation given the task of protecting cultural heritage under the Hague Convention, was unfunded and essentially moribund. Over the past thirteen years much effort has been spent on urging successive UK governments to ratify the Convention and its Protocols: to convince the military that a better attitude to the protection of cultural heritage is demanded under international customary law to create a more effective Blue Shield; and to understand better how and why cultural heritage gets destroyed and damaged during war.

An article entitled ‘A Four Tier Approach’ published in 2013 outlined the four timespans (long-term; immediate pre-deployment; the conflict; and post-conflict) during which the military needed to have support regarding the protection of cultural heritage. 2 A few months later the Army set up the Joint Service Working Group on Cultural Property Protection. Next came the realisation that so-called ‘collateral damage’ is only one of – at least – seven reasons why cultural heritage is damaged during conflict. All seven (lack of planning, spoils of war, military lack of awareness, collateral damage, looting, enforced neglect and specific targeting) can be mitigated to a greater or lesser degree and consequently help reduce the overall damage. Then in June 2015, as a direct result of the destruction at Palmyra, the UK Government announced that it was going to do three things: hold a summit of cultural heritage experts, ratify the Hague Convention and create a Cultural Protection Fund (CPF).

The summit, more of a political press opportunity, came and went. Parliament is now processing the internal legislation necessary to enable the UK to ratify the Convention and both its Protocols, perhaps by the end of the year. This will move Britain from being one of the few major powers not to have ratified the Convention to being the only Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to have ratified the Convention and both of its Protocols. The announcement of the CPF as a £30 million fund spread over four years with the possibility of extension suddenly provided funding that could be proactive: to help rather than stand by impotently watching as more heritage is destroyed. The key to the CPF is to ensure that its funding is spent in a coherent, strategic way and not on a series of unrelated projects that will have little widespread long-term value. At the heart of this is the need for the Government to act decisively and look on the CPF not just to fund projects, but as a means of creating a long-term viable central office for the Blue Shield through an endowment.



1 See Jonathan Tubb’s editorial in this Magazine, 157 (2015), p.743

2 P. Stone: ‘A Four Tier Approach to the Protection of Cultural Propery in the event of Armed Conflict’, Antiquity 87 (March 2013), pp.166–77; repr. in British Army Review (2013), pp.40–51.