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

Thomas Hughes9 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.

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