How are cultural heritage sites protected during armed conflicts and wars?

In a world where conflict and war seem to be more prevalent than ever, the protection of cultural and heritage sites is of paramount importance. These sites represent not only our shared history but also our shared humanity. They are sources of national pride, identity, and invaluable human knowledge. Despite the international convention and law set in place to safeguard these sites, they remain vulnerable during times of war and conflict. In this article, we will delve into the various mechanisms of protection that exist for cultural heritage sites during armed conflict, focusing primarily on the Hague Convention, the UNESCO protocols, and the role of military forces in such contexts.

The Hague Convention

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Event of Armed Conflict is the primary international instrument designed to protect cultural heritage during times of war. This convention was adopted in response to the extensive destruction of cultural property that occurred during World War II.

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The Hague Convention enjoins states to take steps to protect cultural property located within their territory. These steps include preparing inventories of property to be protected, planning emergency measures for protection against fire or structural collapse, and setting up national services for cultural property protection.

The Convention requires states to respect cultural property within their own territory as well as that located in the territory of others. This respect takes the form of refraining from using cultural property for purposes that may expose it to damage or destruction, even in the case of armed conflict. In addition, it prohibits any act of hostility directed against such property.

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The UNESCO Protocols

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works in tandem with the Hague Convention to provide further protections for cultural property. UNESCO has two protocols that deal specifically with the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.

The first protocol, adopted in 1954 along with the Hague Convention, requires parties to prevent the export of cultural property from occupied territories and to return any such property that has been exported.

The second protocol, adopted in 1999, provides a broader protection, in particular for cultural property that has a great importance to the cultural heritage of every people. It also lays down stronger measures regarding both prevention and punishment of violations, including making it a war crime to intentionally damage cultural heritage during conflicts.

Role of Military Forces in Protecting Cultural Property

The military forces of a country have a significant role to play when it comes to protecting cultural property during armed conflict. According to the Hague Convention, military commanders and staff officers should be fully informed about the rules and regulations involving the protection of cultural property.

These military personnel are then expected to integrate the protection of cultural heritage into their operational planning. This means avoiding any unnecessary actions that could harm cultural property. Moreover, the military must refrain from using a cultural property for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage.

It’s also important that the military cooperate with civilian authorities, such as the national services for cultural property protection. The military can assist these services in implementing protective measures, such as evacuating movable cultural property or providing physical protection to immovable property.

The Limitations and Challenges

Whilst the Hague Convention and UNESCO protocols are aimed at ensuring the protection of cultural property during times of conflict and war, their effectiveness is often limited by a lack of enforcement and accountability.

For instance, the fact that the Hague Convention only applies to states that have ratified it, means that non-state actors involved in conflicts are not bound by its rules. Moreover, even among states that have ratified the Convention, compliance can vary widely.

Finally, there’s the challenge of prioritizing the protection of cultural property when the human cost of conflict is so high. This is not to suggest that cultural property is more important than human lives. However, the destruction of cultural heritage is also a humanitarian issue. It’s an attack on the collective memory and identity of peoples. Hence, efforts to protect cultural property should be seen as part of a broader strategy to protect human rights and dignity during times of conflict and war.

In the face of these challenges, it’s crucial to continue advocating for the protection of cultural heritage. This includes strengthening international law, improving military training, and raising public awareness about the importance of cultural heritage and the threats it faces during armed conflict.

The Blue Shield – The Cultural Red Cross

The Blue Shield is often referred to as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, due to its mission to protect the world’s cultural property. This non-governmental, non-profit international organization was formed in 1996 in response to the growing concern over the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflicts.

The Blue Shield works alongside the United Nations, UNESCO, and other international bodies, to protect cultural sites threatened by man-made and natural disasters. It is named after the symbol used to identify protected cultural property under the 1954 Hague Convention.

The organization has four principal functions:

  1. To provide a rapid response to cultural emergencies worldwide.
  2. To train those involved in the protection of cultural property, including military personnel and relevant local authorities.
  3. To raise public awareness on the importance of cultural heritage protection.
  4. To advise and influence governments, NGOs, and the military, to enhance their respective roles in the protection of cultural heritage.

The Blue Shield provides a network of experts and organizations that can mobilize quickly in the event of a crisis. Additionally, the Blue Shield also works proactively to prevent damage to cultural sites by providing training and information to those involved in the protection of these sites.

International Criminal Prosecution for the Destruction of Cultural Property

The destruction of cultural property during armed conflicts is not only a loss of invaluable heritage but it is also considered a war crime under international law. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for war crimes, which include intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments.

In a landmark case in 2016, the ICC found a member of an armed group, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, guilty of the war crime of intentionally attacking historic and religious buildings in Timbuktu, Mali. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. This case represented the first time the ICC had tried the crime of destruction of cultural heritage.

While these proceedings may not deter all potential perpetrators, they serve as a powerful signal that the international community will not tolerate the destruction of cultural heritage. They also provide some form of justice for the affected communities.

Conclusion: The Path Forward

The protection of cultural property during armed conflicts is a complex task that involves various actors and regulations. The Hague Convention, UNESCO protocols, and organizations like the Blue Shield offer a framework for protecting our shared heritage. Yet, challenges persist, including issues with enforcement and accountability, and the need to balance cultural heritage protection with pressing humanitarian concerns.

To overcome these challenges, continued advocacy for cultural heritage protection is crucial. This includes strengthening international humanitarian law, improving military training on cultural property protection, and raising public awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

Furthermore, holding perpetrators accountable through international criminal prosecution underscores the gravity of cultural destruction and can serve as a deterrent. The loss of cultural property is a loss of our collective memory and identity. Therefore, every effort should be made to protect and preserve cultural heritage for future generations. The memory and cultural identity of communities, which are deeply intertwined with these cultural sites, depend on our collective actions today.

The protection of cultural heritage is not just about preserving old buildings and artifacts. It’s about protecting the very essence of human diversity and creativity. In that sense, it’s a responsibility we all share.