After witnessing devastation to cultural heritage sites during World War II, Unesco took it upon itself to protect such structures during conflict based on the idea that “damage to cultural property” means damage to the cultural heritage of everyone. So far, Unesco has largely failed at this goal.
The Taliban in Afghanistan blew up ancient Buddhist statues in 2001, despite pleas from Unesco and other international institutions. Unesco is not alone in its inability to save cultural artifacts. The United States did not have adequate plans in place to mitigate the destruction and looting to Iraq’s many museums and archeological sites during the 2003 invasion. The Iraq National Library was looted and burned, and approximately 14,000 pieces were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq after the invasion.
Unesco, which stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, does not have an option to use military force or powers to impose sanctions on countries that destroy cultural heritage. Instead, Unesco relies on a robust set of international laws and agreements to accomplish its goals. We propose a new protection treaty to strengthen the agency’s powers to protect cultural property.
The current treaty, the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict, could be replaced with a treaty that enables Unesco and other relevant parties to become more involved in three key stages: preventing damage before it occurs, intervening to stop damage in progress and holding those accountable after destruction has occurred.
The 1954 treaty achieved many important aims. It established a broad definition of “cultural property,” encompassing individual sites, groupings of important buildings, objects, scientific collections, books and all buildings dedicated to their study and display. This definition was the foundation for several later treaties dealing with illicit trade in cultural property.
The agreement also provided better protection to movable cultural property. Previous treaties, such as the Roerich Pact of 1935, provided protection only to property within safeguarded buildings. The 1954 treaty extended this protection as a blanket provision, applicable wherever the cultural property was located. It even included detailed procedures for maintaining the protection while transporting cultural property.
The treaty’s first optional protocol allowed third parties to seize looted cultural property if it was brought into their territory, which both discouraged looting and increased the likelihood that looted property could be returned to its rightful owner. The pact also contained other provisions: designating a universal symbol to identify protected sites, creating a standard identification card for personnel responsible for caring for the property and mandating that any cultural property removed from a nation’s territory to be returned after a conflict.
Unesco tried to remedy some problems in the treaty with a second optional protocol in 1999. This set a much clearer process regarding special protection and created the Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which has helped provide financing to nations to rebuild and to save damaged sites. It also established a committee that is tasked (in theory) with monitoring and ensuring that the treaty is carried out.
The treaty also contains preparations that signatories must maintain even in times of peace. These include itemizing lists of significant cultural property, creating special military units for securing cultural sites and providing adequate education to the entire military on the treaty’s provisions.
Safety protocols are undeniably worthwhile. Plans carried out by the curators of the Saddam Center for Manuscripts helped save more than 40,000 documents and manuscripts during the United States invasion, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites says that the preparations in the treaty have helped deter damage and destruction during natural disasters. Yet the provisions remain largely ignored by signatories.
The regulations are not monitored for compliance or enforced by Unesco or any other main independent body. Instead, they are “self-reported” by the nations themselves. Only a quarter of signatories to the treaty have issued such reports since adopting the pact.
The treaty we propose would require a central monitoring and enforcement mechanism. It would take a broad approach: Unesco would first develop stronger minimum guidelines regarding training and security procedures. It would also monitor how well the mechanisms are carried out by countries and devise ways to manage countries that cannot or do not meet the requirements.
Unesco could additionally ensure that such a treaty allowed room for work by local and global nongovernmental organizations, as they could provide a neutral network to monitor and compel countries to comply with the pact.
Some civil society groups already operate closely with Unesco. TheInternational Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) consults and contributes to Unesco projects. Unesco could expand this network to include private foundations, such as Friends of Heritage Preservation, and regional organizations like Europa Nostra and the Center for Heritage Development in Africa.
Intervention is also needed if cultural heritage sites become a target for destruction during a conflict. If the government itself cannot stop the damage, a system could be in place to oblige the international community to heed Unesco’s calls for action. This is especially important given the rise in intrastate conflicts since the end of the cold war.
In just the last few years, the conflict in Mali and the war in Syria have caused immeasurable harm to religious sites, ancient manuscripts and historic city centers. Thankfully, the government of Mali requested international military intervention before further destruction could occur while trying to save as many manuscripts, for example, as possible. Syria, by contrast, has been strongly opposed to outside intervention, and its cultural heritage has suffered.
The war in Syria has caused severe damage to culturally important sites, such as the ancient city of Aleppo. Provisions within the Unesco treaty forbid the agency and other concerned global parties from intervening on behalf of cultural heritage unless they receive an explicit invitation from the Syrian government. Such a provision renders Unesco and others powerless in their mandate, as the very country they need an invitation from may view the presence of third parties a hindrance to its military operations. A direct path of nonaligned intervention is therefore necessary, either by providing a physical security presence at the cultural site or by enforcing sanctions.
Such intervention can be enhanced by allowing third parties or neutral players to request and provide protection of cultural sites in a conflict zone. A similar idea has been proposed by academics who want to change the 1972 World Heritage Convention by letting countries nominate sites for the World Heritage List in another nation’s territories. The use of international forces, as opposed to domestic troops, to secure sites important to ethnic minorities has been highly useful, as recognized in the Ahtisaari peace plan for Kosovo.
Ultimately, a new treaty should establish universal jurisdiction for prosecuting those who destroy cultural heritage sites in wartime. The current regime requires nations to create domestic laws that criminalize such behavior, giving territorial or extraterritorial jurisdiction to the nation in which the violation occurred or to the violator’s nation. But without international involvement, prosecution of such crimes in intrastate conflict becomes nearly impossible.
Although national prosecution of crimes against cultural property during conflict has experience moderate success, as in the case of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, these prosecutions usually occur after a drastic change in leadership, along with the global community pushing the courts to prosecute such crimes.
International prosecution of such crimes has a precedent. After cultural heritage sites were destroyed during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia asserted its authority in this arena through its statute. This resulted in a landmark decision in Prosecutor v. Kordic and Cerkez, where both defendants were convicted of breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violations of the laws or customs of war, including “destruction or willful damage to institutions dedicated to religion or education.”
Unesco’s desire to protect cultural heritage sites from the calamitous forces of war is noble. Yet the institutions available to the agency to do so have not worked optimally. It is time for a new treaty to fill all protection gaps. Protecting cultural heritage is more than saving old buildings and relics. It is about our ability to pass the legacy of humankind to the future, confident it is in good hands.