The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO has defined cultural heritage as including artefacts, monuments, buildings, sites and museums that provide a variety of cultural benefits. This includes those that have symbolic, historic, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological, scientific and/or social significance. It has also said that cultural heritage can be both tangible and intangible. The latter includes practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated with them—that communities, groups and individuals may recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

1. How is cultural heritage affected by conflict?

Throughout history, all types of cultural heritage have been affected by conflict. Buildings and monuments have become collateral damage and artwork and artefacts have been looted. In some cases, cultural sites and objects have also been deliberately targeted and destroyed. One of the most well-known examples of cultural heritage being purposefully targeted occurred during the second world war when the Nazi regime systematically looted and destroyed art and cultural objects across Europe.

The targeting of cultural heritage is not a historic problem, however; it continues to be a feature of many recent conflicts. Sabine von Schorlemer, chair of international law, EU law and international relations at the Technical University of Dresden and a former state minister for Saxony in Germany, has argued that “deliberate and systematic acts against cultural heritage have spread to a considerable extent” since the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan in March 2001. In her book ‘The Protection of Cultural Heritage during Armed Conflict: The Changing Paradigms’ (2020), Noelle Higgins, associate professor of law at Maynooth University in Ireland, also argued that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage has become a hallmark of recent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, citing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Mali as examples.

This type of deliberate destruction was seen in Syria and Iraq when the terrorist group Daesh targeted cultural heritage as part of their plans to create a caliphate. In 2015, the group used bulldozers and explosives to destroy the Syrian city of Palmyra which had a long history before later becoming part of the Roman empire. In Mosul, Iraq, there were reports of Daesh looting from libraries and universities, with claims that the group stole centuries-old manuscripts and thousands of books from the city which ended up for sale on the international art market. The group also burnt down Mosul’s university library and blew up the central public library. In addition, videos showed militants destroying artefacts in the Mosul Museum with hammers.

It has also been alleged that Russia has been deliberately targeting Ukrainian cultural heritage, although this has been disputed. A European Parliament briefing published in September 2022 argued that since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian army has damaged or destroyed hundreds of cultural, artistic, scientific, educational and religious institutions, sites and works. It also reported that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 the Russian army has targeted cultural assets, with the destruction of libraries and educational institutions “part of a deliberate campaign of cultural cleansing” aimed at erasing culture.

Ukraine’s cultural minister has said that Russian soldiers have looted thousands of artefacts from almost 40 Ukrainian museums and destroyed many cultural sites. The first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, has described these attacks as a war against Ukrainian identity. However, writing for the Art Newspaper, author Robert Bevan has questioned whether Russia has deliberately attacked cultural targets. He has instead argued that some of the destruction could be as a result of collateral damage. Russia has also denied that it has targeted cultural heritage and said that it takes precautions to avoid such sites being damaged.

2. Why is cultural heritage targeted?

Various commentators have argued that the targeting of cultural heritage is intended as an attack on the communities for which the heritage is an essential part of their unique cultural identity. A former director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has argued that this was the aim of Daesh when they targeted Palmyra. She has referred to such actions as “cultural cleansing” and said that the group’s intention was to “deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history”. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry has also claimed that the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria was “a purposeful final insult”. He argued that Daesh was not only stealing lives in the country, but also “stealing the soul of millions”.

Italy-based academics Paolo Foradori, Serena Giusti and Alessandro Giovanni Lamonica have also argued that Daesh used the destruction of cultural heritage as a means of control. They argued that the group used iconoclasm to “assert their absolute domination over the population […] including the social and cultural context in which that population lives”. Noelle Higgins has also argued that the actions of Daesh were not arbitrary or illogical, but rather were a tactic to disrupt society “as part of a premeditated strategy to expand”.

Sabine von Schorlemer has argued that financial motivations may play a role in the targeting of cultural heritage. Highlighting that many cultural objects have a high commercial value in international markets, she suggested that they are exploited by non-state actors to raise funds. For example, she highlighted that Daesh’s antiquities division raised funds through the issuing of licenses for archaeological digging and collected taxes through the trafficking of objects. It has been estimated that the group made millions of dollars from their activities relating to the illegal antiquities trade.

3. How is cultural heritage protected?

Cultural heritage is protected in international law. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was the first international treaty dedicated solely to the protection of cultural heritage. The convention obligated member states to “respect” and “safeguard” property during conflict. It also focused on the value of such heritage by stating that any damage to cultural heritage, regardless of the people it belongs to, damages the cultural heritage of all humanity.

Other protections of cultural heritage include the two protocols that supplemented the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Sabine von Schorlemer has said that the nature of conflicts has changed since the second world war. She argued that today, many conflicts involve non-state actors who have no obligations under international humanitarian law such as the 1954 Hague Convention.

It has also been argued that not enough protections exist for cultural heritage and those that do are not fit for purpose. Federico Lenzerini, a professor of law at the University of Siena, has said that despite the widespread condemnation of attacks on cultural heritage, “concrete action to halt the crime in question has been quite limited so far”. This is both in terms of the reaction to cases of destruction and in the prevention of such destruction when it is likely to happen. Edward C Luck, a professor at Columbia University in New York and a former advisor to the UN, has also said that the threat to cultural heritage has been treated as a second- or third-tier policy priority by the international community. He has argued that “unless this gap is narrowed” efforts to protect cultural heritage against growing threats will “fall tragically short”.

In her book, Noelle Higgins considered recent actions by academics and organisations to suggest new approaches to the protection of cultural heritage in conflict. For example, she said that actions around the securitisation of cultural heritage by the UN have led to the emergence of cultural peacekeeping and an emphasis on cultural heritage in peacebuilding initiatives.

Ms Higgins also referred to the case of Prosecutor v Al Mahdi at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was founded under the Rome Statute and it grants the court jurisdiction over four main crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes that are grave breaches of the Geneva convention and crimes of aggression. War crimes can include “intentionally directing attacks against hospitals, historic monuments, or buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes”. In September 2016, Mr Al Mahdi was found guilty of a war crime for directing attacks against historic buildings and monuments dedicated to religion in Mali.

Ms Higgins argued that the case showed that the ICC has addressed the question of individual criminal responsibility in respect to recent attacks on cultural heritage. However, she also argued that the case-specific nature of the ruling was an inadequate response to the general destruction of cultural heritage. Looking forward, Ms Higgins argued that the targeting of cultural heritage requires a reassessment of the existing international legal framework.

Image by Andrea Lamberti on Pixabay.