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Lunch Hour Lectures: International Law and the protection of cultural property in war

By Thomas Hughes, on 9 February 2016

Unusually for a Lunch Hour Lecture, Professor Roger O’Keefe (UCL Laws) spoke without the support of slides for nearly an hour about international efforts to protect cultural heritage in war zones – because he believed that images illustrating instances of cultural damage would simply be too depressing.

By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12163785

Monument Arch in Palmyra, Syria. Now destroyed by IS.

International law

International law prohibits the damaging of cultural sites during war, and almost all UN member states have signed up to this. These agreements are often criticised however for failing to protect a number of cultural sites from damage or destruction.

This has particularly been the case in the Syrian civil war, where a number of high profile sites such as crusader castles and ancient temples have been damaged.

However, as Professor O’Keefe pointed out, few laws are perfect: for example, people still carry out murder despite strong laws against it and serious punishments for this crime. In his view, the law against the damaging of cultural heritage sites, while not perfect, makes important efforts to protect these historical areas.

The law in practice

The law makes damaging cultural heritage sites a war crime, unless attacking the historical site has a legitimate military purpose. For example, Islamic State (IS) regularly ignores the law and uses cultural sites as bases or defensive positions. In this case it is acceptable to target them as a last resort – such an attack is “tragic, but not unlawful” in Professor O’Keefe’s words.

However this is not always necessary. When Palestinian militants took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, Israeli forces simply surrounded the church and waited them out. In other cases where snipers or small garrisons have taken up positions in minarets or ziggurats they have often simply been ignored.

Abuse of the law on a larger scale is more problematic. For example, Saddam Hussein parked a number of fighter jets next to a ziggurat during the Iraq war. Since they were not fuelled and not on a runway, they could not be considered a target by American and British forces as they were so close to a major cultural site.

Enforcing the law

The main problem with the international agreements is that non-state groups such as IS cannot be forced to follow the law. Indeed IS has been actively using cultural artefacts to fund its military, by selling them to collectors abroad.

The law in this case can do two things. Firstly, it allows the perpetrators of these crimes to be brought to justice eventually. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in Strasbourg has prosecuted for “crimes against culture” in the past.

For example, in September 2015 Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was indicted by the ICC for crimes against culture for intentionally attacking historical religious sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

Secondly, the law can clamp down on the trading of stolen artefacts, especially from war zones such as Syria and Iraq. Since almost all UN member states are part of this treaty it can very effectively shut down any conventional methods for the sale of these artefacts if they are not properly sourced.

This of course doesn’t prevent them being sold illegally. The UK for example only has two full-time police officers dedicated to policing the trafficking of cultural artefacts, which limits the UK’s ability to clamp down on this trade.

What else can be done?

Professor O’Keefe talked us through some of the initiatives that are being trialled in an attempt to expand protection of important cultural heritage.

UNESCO, the UN agency tasked with protecting and preserving cultural and historical sites, is planning to create a guide for militaries on how to deal with these sites, including how to prevent looting and theft by their own troops (which they are legally obliged to prevent).

However it is often not enough to try and prevent the damage, sometimes it’s best to move portable artefacts to a safer place. Switzerland and Japan are examples of two countries that have offered temporary homes to artefacts from Syria and Iraq. The hope is that after the danger is removed, the artefacts can be restored to their original homes.

There is also always the possibility that specialists can pick up the pieces and repair the damage after the event. While this can be slow and hugely time consuming, there are a number of talented individuals who specialise in restoring historical sites and artefacts.

In essence, Professor O’Keefe noted that whatever we decide to do, it is essential that we work hard to preserve these cultural sites and artefacts, and punish those who would desecrate them. They are an important window into our past, and we will be culturally diminished if they are lost.

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