Protecting the World’s Cultural Heritage from Destruction

More concerted efforts are needed to protect cultural heritage from abuse and destruction in the Middle East and beyond

The destruction in August of the 2,000-year-old temples of Baal Shamin and Bel in Palmyra marks the latest in a recent timeline of efforts by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) to obliterate ancient sites in the Middle East. The group glorifies this destruction, claiming that it is eradicating idolatry.

The actions of Daesh are just the latest expression of a growing threat to ‘cultural property’ – the legal term for cultural heritage – which is increasingly endangered not only by time, nature and human development, but also by armed conflict and upheavals. This return of iconoclasm is not restricted to ancient monuments and sites. It is also aimed at written heritage, from manuscripts to books, with most contemporary conflicts in which such heritage is endangered taking place in the Islamic world. It is critical to pay special attention to the protection and restoration of written Islamic heritage before the cultural memory rooted in these regions is erased from the world’s common consciousness and lost to future generations.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Testament to this is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in antiquity. However, the subject has recently featured with increasing regularity in international news, since the destruction in 1992 of the National Library in Sarajevo and 80 per cent of its contents (an estimated 3 million books) during the Bosnian War.

Examples of more recent iconoclasm against written heritage include the arson of l’Institut d’Egypte in Cairo in December 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, which saw more than 200,000 books damaged and approximately 170,000 volumes lost. In 2012, the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine attacked the cultural heritage of Mali; in Timbuktu, the city’s famous manuscripts were targeted specifically. Many of the Timbuktu Manuscripts had been kept in the new Ahmed Baba Institute’s library, built with South African support. Ansar Dine took over this library and burned a number of the manuscripts. Fortunately, a large number had been hidden or transported to the Malian capital of Bamako before the group’s arrival.

Most recently, written heritage has been a target of Daesh. Mosul’s public library, which contained some 8,000 rare antique books and manuscripts, was destroyed by the group in February, as was Mosul’s university and its own library. This did not, however, feature in a February propaganda film showing irreplaceable objects in Mosul’s Nineveh Museum being destroyed, potentially indicating the lower profile given by the group to written heritage. Of course, there was also no mention of the objects that had been spared from destruction and were instead destined for sale to help finance the group’s military efforts.

Warring parties are often guilty of abuse and destruction of cultural property, including written heritage, whether intentionally or by accident. In partaking in this destruction, they disregard the fact that cultural property is ‘protected’ under international laws. These include the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; UNIDROIT’s 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects; and specific articles of the 1998 Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC); amongst numerous others.

When examining the semantics of terms used by the international community to define cultural heritage, cultural property and cultural resources, it becomes clear that these possess a certain vagueness. For example, the general use of the nouns ‘property’ and ‘heritage’ in connection with the adjective ‘cultural’ indicates room for disputes over ownership. This in turn, makes the term ‘cultural property’ susceptible to misinterpretation or potential manipulation. ‘Cultural resources’ is a more objective term, but is rarely used in official documents.

A further distinction must be made between material and non-material heritage. Material heritage comprises sculptures and paintings but also libraries, archives, monuments and archaeological sites. Non-material, also referred to as intangible heritage, includes language, national anthems and historic traditions. All heritage is strongly connected with identity, and is therefore potentially politically and socially sensitive, especially in the context of conflicts and disputes. Within this framework, written heritage has a dual status: libraries, archives and manuscripts constitute material cultural properties, but are simultaneously carriers of intangible heritage, such as ideas and, by extension, identity.

Indeed, in general terms, books and documents can be considered to be powerful containers of identity. Simultaneously, the material manifestation of a book or manuscript can be as an artefact, but also a sacred, and thus religiously sensitive, object. Meanwhile, archives may be perceived both as cultural heritage for a national society or smaller community, and as strategic targets for warring parties – given that working archives hold tactical information about individuals and political issues. Military experts connect this information with military intelligence. Additionally, libraries and archives can themselves be historic monuments.

Written heritage, and the buildings that house it, are thus often highly sought-after targets during war and conflict. With the frequency of current attacks on cultural and, increasingly, written heritage and identity-related objects, the UN has specifically acknowledged the extent to which these attacks constitute war crimes.

The abuse and destruction of written heritage also have implications for many related areas within the realms of heritage. These include conservation, restoration, authentication (against forgeries) and developments concerning digitisation, manipulation, political propaganda, illicit trafficking and legislation. This makes cultural-property protection (CPP) a complicated multi-disciplinary topic that involves a range of stakeholders, including the military and police, diplomats, legal specialists, auctioneers, antique dealers and religious experts, to name but a few. All of these stakeholders represent and defend their own interests. To add further complexity to the matter, the cultural war crimes they seek to combat are not conducted by jihadist movements alone, but also, for example, by corrupt and transnational organised criminal actors. The involvement of this range of elusive groups adds a range of further challenges to an already highly complex task.

Indeed, considering the complexity and the seriousness of today’s challenges to cultural and written heritage, it is clear that its safeguarding cannot be the purview only of archaeologists, art experts and librarians, who often act in a private capacity. Yet there remains no operational CPP concept that can be implemented through international co-operation and co-ordination. Meanwhile, existing legal obligations and sanctions are not sufficiently enforced – for instance, some cultural war crimes could and should be prosecuted by the ICC. Cultural property remains unrecognised as an international resource in need of the same protection as natural resources such as oil. Although moral and legal obligations exist, there are very limited opportunities available for training in cultural property protection, education and research, and for the deployment of ‘new’ stakeholders like the military who are equipped to operate in war zones.

The question thus revolves around what can be done to address the lack of effective practical implementation of legal obligations such as The Hague Convention of 1954 and its protocols. Under this question are numerous sub-questions and dilemmas varying from ethical, identity, political and budgetary to legal and military-strategic issues. All aspects require further multi-disciplinary research and analysis to fill the knowledge gaps that persist. International institutions tasked with CPP are not sufficiently proactive in this regard and tend to display behaviour characterised, to a degree, by an overemphasis on bureaucracy and risk avoidance. In addition, they often suggest that there is insufficient funding to do an adequate job – an issue that requires further investigation.

A further factor hindering attempts to strengthen the implementation of legal obligations around the protection of cultural heritage relate to a commonly held misconception: the belief that although protection of heritage is important, humanitarian aid to those displaced by conflict and natural disasters should take priority. This line of argument is increasingly recognised as a weak one: one does not necessarily exclude the other. Cultural property protection and humanitarian aid are substantive and financially separate areas of activity. No funds are withdrawn from monies allocated to humanitarian disasters when cultural heritage is protected.

If anything, the imperative of protecting cultural, including written, heritage has never been greater. In today’s changed landscape of asymmetric conflict, crimes against cultural objects can pose a range of serious global security challenges. These range from the major contribution made by the looting, trafficking and sale of artefacts to the financing of terrorism, to the revenues this provides for transnational organised criminal organisations and corrupt officials. A key means of controlling this must involve an effective CPP strategy anchored in military operational planning.

To enable this, planning experts in this area must be trained in co-operation with civil heritage experts. Existing planning guidance must be adapted to comply with international humanitarian legal obligations. And on-site assessments during conflicts are needed to gather evidence for the prosecution of those accused of cultural (war) crimes.

Beyond this, where conditions are unsafe, a military ‘monuments team’ should be deployed in close contact with civilian experts. Techniques often used by the military, such as satellite remote sensing, aerial imagery and drones, should be utilised wherever possible. Yet geographic information systems and social media, currently also used by civilian experts to monitor destruction, can never fully replace on-site evaluations. These should take place wherever possible, with military assistance where required.

CPP is in fact a force multiplier given its role in denying the enemy valuable financial resources. In this context, the militarisation of archaeology, considered by some as unethical, is not the issue at stake. Rather the core question relates to the militarisation of cultural property protection in conflict situations where it is required in order to fulfil legal protection obligations. The answer to the question of whether we can stop the destruction of our cultural heritage remains unclear. But now, more than ever, we should resist the dismantling of our shared identity and not hesitate to use all of the levers at our disposal.

Dr Joris D Kila
Chairman, International Military Cultural Resources Working Group, and Senior Researcher, Centre for Cultural Heritage Protection, University of Vienna.


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