Guest blog by Kristel Witkam.
Cultural property is an important part of the identity of people. It is the common history of mankind and therefore the responsibility of all people.[i] Cultural property is needed to study the past and as Peter Stone, UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace says: “We study the past, to understand the present, to create the future”.[ii] Memories are stored in our cultural property and it can help rebuild war torn societies and create stability, also economically.[iii] [iv] It can even support a military mission.[v] For example, protecting local heritage will help create goodwill with the local community. Another reason to protect cultural property is that damage to cultural property can have a direct link to the loss of life, because some people respond to the damage with violence, creating a spiral of violence.[vi] And finally, Illegal trade of antiquities is often a financial resource for terrorist activities and therefore a factor in the continuation of the conflict.
The destruction of cultural property is an old problem but still a topical issue. The destruction of cultural property in mostly Iraq and Syria is still a trending topic in the media. But it is not a new problem, cultural property has played a part in conflict and war throughout history.[vii] After the second world war The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954 was created to prevent this destruction in the future, but even then it continued.[viii] Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, called this destruction of cultural property in Iraq ‘cultural cleansing’ “extremists want to impose a different vision on the world. They want to tell us that there is no memory, that there is no culture, that there is no heritage”.[ix]
But lately there are some positive developments in the field of cultural property protection. The first is the announcement of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill the UK adopted during the queen’s speech the 18th of May 2016, which makes it possible for the UK to finally ratify The Hague convention 1954. Another major step is the case of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The trial opens 22nd of August 2016. Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi is charged according to the Rome Statute of the ICC for the destruction of cultural property in Mali (demolishing ancient mausoleums). This is the first trial within the ICC with the destruction of cultural property as the main charge against a suspect.[x][xi]
But there are still major steps that need to be taken. For example, the involvement of the military in the protection of cultural property. The military could have an important role in this protection and it has even an obligation to do so, according to The Hague Convention.[xii] But soldiers aren’t always aware of these responsibilities and of the need to protect cultural property. That’s why awareness about the importance of cultural property and The Hague convention and it’s protocols should be raised. Various organizations are taking care of this awareness raising, most importantly the Blue Shield. A new tool for soldiers to help them in fulfilling their responsibilities under The Hague convention was made by a Reinwardt Academy student Kristel Witkam. The new tool assists the military with minimizing the damage done by the military itself, which makes the tool more feasible to use. It supports soldiers with the identification and reporting of cultural property. It assists in making observations and with passing through important information about cultural property sites. The new tool supports with acting with respect towards cultural property and its surroundings. It can help soldiers with remembering their cultural training and it will raise awareness about the need to protect cultural property. The tool is clear and combines giving important information in multiple ways and supporting with collecting information.
Concluding, cultural property is very important for everyone and it should be protected. There are some positive developments, but there is still need for awareness raising and positive military involvement.
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[i] M. Pasikowska-schnass, European Parliament, briefing March 2016 Protection of cultural heritage in armed conflicts. (2016) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/579081/EPRS_BRI(2016)579081_EN.pdf.
[ii] G. Ebner ed., Coping with culture 2014. Vienna, June 2015. 102.
[iii] G. Ebner ed., Coping with culture 2014. Vienna, June 2015. 101.
[iv] L.W. Rush, Cultural Property Protection as a Force Multiplier in Stability Operations, World War II Monuments Officers Lessons Learned. 2012. http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20120430_art008.pdf, 8-9
[vi] G. Ebner ed., Coping with culture 2014. Vienna, June 2015. 102.
[vii] D. Zwaagstra “60th Anniversary of the UNESCO 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of an Armed Conflict”(version 2014) http://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/2014/05/60th-anniversary-of-the-unesco-1954-hague-convention-for-the-protection-of-cultural-heritage-in-the-event-of-an-armed-conflict-2/
[viii] UNESCO, Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954, The Hague, 1954. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0008/000824/082464mb.pdf
[ix] M. Neubert and A. Smith, “UNESCO's Irina Bokova Laments ISIS' 'Cultural Cleansing' of Antiquities” (version 7 July 2016). http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/unesco-boss-irina-bokova-laments-isis-cultural-cleansing-antiquities-n386291.
[x] Legalbrief, Africa's ancient culture in the spotlight at The Hague. 2016, http://legalbrief.co.za/diary/legalbrief-africa-new/story/africas-ancient-culture-in-the-spotlight-at-the-hague/pdf/
[xi] UNESCO, “Jihadist voor rechter om vernieling cultureel erfgoed” (version 28 September 2015), https://www.unesco.nl/artikel/jihadist-voor-rechter-om-vernieling-cultureel-erfgoed.
[xii] UNESCO, Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954. The Hague, 1954. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0008/000824/082464mb.pdf.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Cunliffe, N. Muhesent and M. Lostal, “The Destruction of Cultural Property in the Syrian Conflict: Legal Implications and Obligations”, International Journal of Cultural Property, 1 (2016).
- Kila, J., Heritage under Siege: Military Implementation of Cultural Property Protection following the 1954 Hague Convention, Leiden, Brill, 2012.
- Kila, J.D. and Zeidler, J.A. (eds), Cultural Heritage in the Crosshairs, Protecting Cultural Property during Conflict, Leiden, Brill, 2013.