Lyndel V. Prott is director of UNESCO's Division of Cultural Heritage. Prior to joining UNESCO in 1990, she had a distinguished career teaching and researching at the Faculty of Law of the University of Sydney, where she held the Chair in Cultural Heritage Law. With her husband, Dr. P. J. O'Keefe, she is coauthoring a five-volume work, Law and the Cultural Heritage, two volumes of which are already published. Her book on the International Court of Justice, The Latent Power of Culture and the International Judge (1979), and her more recent Commentary on the UNIDROIT Convention (1995) are also well known among experts in international law. For her work she has been awarded honors by the governments of Australia and Austria.
Dr. Prott spoke with Marta de la Torre—recently head of GCI's Information & Communications and now principal project specialist in the office of the GCI director—and Jeffrey Levin, the editor of Conservation.
Marta de la Torre: Given recent events in Afghanistan and elsewhere, one can get the impression that in the last few decades, there's been an increase in the intentional destruction of heritage. Has there really been an increase—or are we just more aware of it today?
Lyndel Prott: I'm not so sure there's more of it happening now. We know very well what the Nazis did to cultural heritage earlier in the century. In the 1960s, we had the Cultural Revolution in China. I think we're more aware of it today because heritage in general is much more popular. Many of these places are now designated heritage sites or objects that have received a certain degree of publicity, so anything that happens to them is news.
Marta de la Torre:The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict—the Hague Convention—is the earliest convention that UNESCO has promoted. In what instances does it apply?
Lyndel Prott: The Hague Convention was set up in 1954 as a result of the damage done to the cultural heritage during the Second World War. It creates a protective regime for all sorts of cultural property—monuments, sites, movable property, groups of buildings, works of art, manuscripts, books, archives, scientific collections, and so on. The fact that the Convention exists at all certainly has set a standard. Unfortunately, in many conflicts now, states are not prepared to apply the Geneva Conventions on the protection of the sick, the wounded, and prisoners of war, and the outlawry of genocide or torture. If those basic international standards for civilized conduct are not observed, one hasn't got much chance of forcing those states to observe the rules on protection of cultural heritage.
Marta de la Torre:Do you think that designating something as a significant piece of heritage can actually have the unintended consequence of making it a target in a conflict?
Lyndel Prott: I think that's true, particularly in ethnic disputes, which are always very nasty. Sometimes the cultural icons of the other side are destroyed in an effort to eliminate any evidence that that culture has existed on that territory. If you have a nice little list of these on the World Heritage List, it's very easy to know what to target first. That is a risk.
Marta de la Torre: The Second Protocol of the Hague Convention, proposed in 1999, contains new measures to reinforce and strengthen the original Convention. How does the Second Protocol address the vulnerability of heritage in cases of ethnic disputes?
Lyndel Prott: Interestingly enough, if Afghanistan had been a party to the Hague Convention, even without the Second Protocol, we could now be taking some action against the Taliban. The Convention does apply in civil wars, not just in international conflict. Unfortunately, we don't have that provision in the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage—the World Heritage Convention—which is more concerned with protection in peacetime. But the Second Protocol also would help, because it sets out clearly that individuals commit an offense if they have intentionally attacked cultural property, or made theft, pillage, misappropriation, or acts of vandalism against this property. This makes the individual responsible. Unfortunately, we can't expect to get at the Taliban and others acting like that if they are not a party to the Hague Convention.
Jeffrey Levin: Was the development of the Second Protocol prompted by the increasing numbers of civil conflicts, as opposed to conflicts between states?
Lyndel Prott: In negotiating this agreement, the experts were very aware that what we have now are not major, worldwide, long-term conflicts like the Second World War but more short-term, local, interethnic conflicts, sometimes within a state and sometimes changing. The war in Yugoslavia started as an internal conflict and then turned into an international conflict.
Jeffrey Levin: In what way would the provisions of the Second Protocol—which, as yet, hasn't reached the minimum number of signatories to go into effect—be enforced?
Lyndel Prott: There will be an intergovernmental committee that looks at at-risk situations and tries to see what kind of preventive measures should be taken for cultural heritage. It also has a category of specific offenses against cultural property, and each party to the Convention is to adopt measures to establish these as criminal offenses under its national law. In doing so, they have the possibility of extending criminal responsibility to persons other than those who directly commit the act. In the case of the Taliban, whoever gave the orders for this destruction would be as liable as the person who actually drilled the holes and put in the explosives. States can take action when the offense is committed in the territory of the state or when the alleged offender is a national of that state or, in the more serious offenses, when the offender is on the territory of the state. That is a considerable advance in jurisdiction over the very bare minimum provisions in the actual Convention.
Jeffrey Levin: Are there a large number of states that haven't ratified the 1954 Hague Convention?
Lyndel Prott: Yes, and it's not just small and developing states like Afghanistan but some of the major states, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. If they don't become parties, it's hard to get the other states to become parties. We have 162 members of the World Heritage Convention and only 100 for the Hague Convention. What are those other 62 members of the World Heritage Convention doing? By becoming party to that Convention, they are saying that they're committed to the protection of heritage throughout the world—and yet, here is a key agreement, the Hague Convention, that they're not a party to. We have to do something about that.
Jeffrey Levin: Could you speculate on the reasons why some of the major countries have failed to ratify the Hague Convention?
Lyndel Prott: At the time it was created, both Britain and the United States negotiated hard for it and believed in its aims. But the Cold War led, I think, to cold feet. They had some suspicion that the Convention might limit the means of warfare. I think there was a misreading of it because there clearly was a provision for military necessity. In the case of Japan, I think it was different. Its post-World War II legal and political position was that it had no military forces, and it may have read the Convention as saying that one was preparing for warwhich is the last thing the Japanese either wanted or wanted it to be thought they were doing. Attitudes in Japan are changing, and I don't discard the possibility that they will, at some stage, become a party. As far as the United States is concerned, the treaty has been sent to the Senate, and it remains to be seen what its fate will be.
Jeffrey Levin: Generally, which countries have been the most cooperative in signing and adhering to international agreements on heritage protection?
Lyndel Prott: The states that have the best record in signature and ratification are the European, North American, and Arab states. The states that probably have the least participation are the Asian states. The Latin American and the African countries are in the middle.
Marta de la Torre: There is another initiative recently established, called the Blue Shield. How does that differ from the Hague Convention?
Lyndel Prott: The Hague Convention is an intergovernmental structure, and UNESCO acts on behalf of the states party to that Convention. The Blue Shield, however, is made up of the International Council of Archives, the International Federation of Library Associations, ICOMOS, and ICOM. These are the professionals whom UNESCO often uses in conflict situations to go and assess the risk, advise states on how to protect their cultural property, and assess damage in the case of conflict. Many of these experts felt that they could do a lot outside the governmental structure to help their colleagues in other countries. I have to pay tribute to conservators, restorers, art historians, and other cultural experts who—often at considerable risk to themselves and sometimes at their own expense—have gone where conflict threatens or destruction is occurring, to inventory, assess damage, help protect materials, and, after the conflict, return to help reconstitute the heritage.
Marta de la Torre: We know that in conflicts, the movable heritage becomes nomadic—and that seems to be happening in Afghanistan, where the museum in Kabul was destroyed.
Lyndel Prott: Yes, we're told that there is a lot of Afghan material coming into Pakistan and other countries in the region, such as Iran, Turkistan, and Uzbekistan. There are a great many people who say we must get hold of what we can, put it in safe custody, and, eventually, when the situation stabilizes in Afghanistan, find a way of reconstituting this heritage. Our 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property requires some recognition and application of a state's export control. In this case, a state's export control is being flouted—and yet if it weren't, these objects would probably stay in the country and be destroyed. This is a very anomalous situation that calls for an unprecedented effort. We now have an emergency program to help certain reputable nongovernmental organizations to protect material from Afghanistan. This is the sort of work being done by the Society for the Protection of the Afghan Cultural Heritage. They are trying to persuade people who have Afghan heritage to donate it so that it can be put into safety and later returned to Afghanistan. We are working with several organizations to that end.
Marta de la Torre: There are pieces in the market that might come from Afghanistan but could just as well be from other countries in the region. Could the actual buying of pieces—assumed to be from Afghanistan—be promoting illicit traffic in other countries in the region?
Lyndel Prott: That is, of course, a problem. And not only that, the fact that people are trying to rescue this material has induced a lot of forgeries into the market. However, the organizations we are working with are well advised by experts who can detect forgeries. The question of where the material comes from is much more difficult. The culture of Afghanistan is very close in many respects to that of Pakistan, and the Pakistani authorities' legislation applies to cultures that may be transborder cultures, a situation that makes the origin of objects quite difficult to say. However, we have the cooperation of the Pakistani government, which is also very concerned about the loss of Afghan heritage. Many concerned people, states, and organizations are working hard to rescue this material without flouting either the rules of our Convention or the domestic laws of the countries concerned, or, in fact, depriving other countries in the region of their cultural heritage because we think it might come from Afghanistan.
Jeffrey Levin: Lyndel, how would you respond to the criticism of some that in certain instances of threats to cultural heritage, UNESCO is slow to act.
Lyndel Prott: I don't think we are slow to respond, but our response is not always public, for very good reasons. For example, when war between Croatia and Yugoslavia threatened, the director-general sent a special envoy to the capitals of both and received assurances from both that they regarded themselves bound by the Hague Convention. A lot of persuasion has to go on at the private level. If you start making strong declarations without discussing them first with the countries concerned, you may persuade them that they have nothing to lose by flouting the Convention because it is assumed that they will anyway. The other situation is when the threat is already public, as in Afghanistan. There we also acted very quickly. The day the director-general read of the threat to destroy the Buddhas, he immediately made a public appeal and sent a personal letter to the leader of the Taliban. Within a few days, we had a task force set up. We had already talked to all the Islamic states about it. Within three days, we had a special ambassador there, a former French ambassador in Islamabad who speaks Pashtu and is respected as an expert on Islamic heritage. I am convinced that we acted as thoroughly as anyone could have done in this situation. We had to do that once before, in 1997, when the Taliban first said they would destroy the Buddhas. We took action then and we managed to stop the destruction. On this occasion it didn't work. Many other organizations besides UNESCO did their best, including a number of Islamic states. None of us was able to stop it.
Marta de la Torre: During the bombing of Dubrovnik a few years ago, I'm sure there were negotiations going on behind the scenes. In that kind of situation, is there some value in having an organization as international and as important as UNESCO take a public stand quickly?
Lyndel Prott: In that case, there were these more or less private negotiations I mentioned. When it was clear that damage was occurring despite the assurances, there were two public appeals by the director-general, pointing out that this was contrary to the Convention and should not be done. When the threat of shelling developed, we sent over two representatives, one from ICOMOS and one from the Secretariat of UNESCO—and they were in Dubrovnik when it was shelled. They sent a cable to the director-general reporting that they were being shelled. He immediately intervened, and as a result, the shelling was stopped. So I don't think it can be said that we were inactive or did not take a public stance.
Marta de la Torre: Do you think that the recent decision of the International Tribunal to condemn as criminal the destruction of the heritage in Dubrovnik is an indication of what the future might bring?
Lyndel Prott: That position was taken, I think, as a matter of principle by the prosecutor's office in The Hague, to make clear that there would be a precedent for the future. They gathered a lot of evidence, both on the Mostar Bridge and in the case of Dubrovnik, and now a precedent has been set. Any future war crimes tribunal has to consider prosecuting offenses against cultural property. It is also, of course, part of the statute of the International Criminal Court—and again, that cheers us very much because it means that offenses under the Hague Convention, whether or not a state is party to the Second Protocol, absolutely have a mechanism for prosecution and punishment.
Jeffrey Levin: This is the first time since World War II that an international criminal indictment has been handed down for the destruction of cultural heritage—is that correct?
Lyndel Prott: That's right. And I'm sure it will be a route pursued in the future. We have seen a gradual building up of acceptance for criminal prosecution in these situations. I believe that when the statutes of any other international war crimes tribunals are drawn up, they will include the possibility of indictments for these offenses.
Marta de la Torre: Can you tell us about some instances where we have been able to prevent the destruction of heritage that was being threatened?
Lyndel Prott: One is the case of Bucharest. The Romanian government was engaging in large-scale destruction against some rural villages and also against the old center of Bucharest. UNESCO, at the request of many of its member states—and because of its own concern—sent a mission to Bucharest to assess the situation, and the mission prepared a report that was quite damning. Only a few months later, the regime was toppled. This was not cause and effect, but it certainly contributed, I think, to the final collapse of that regime. I've mentioned the case of Dubrovnik. I've also mentioned the case in 1997 when the Taliban were first threatening to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas. There are cases where we have success, but of course they're less publicized than the ones where we don't manage to do what we want to do.
Marta de la Torre: Perhaps by making those successes known, we can discourage the thinking that we are powerless to do anything.
Lyndel Prott: Yes. But there's another factor to consider. UNESCO supports the recognition of cultural diversity, and that's really where it all where it all starts. It's much too late when you have someone who's been raised in bitterness to the age of 18, and you put a gun in his hand and send him to war, saying, "look after the monuments." It is not going to happen. You have to teach children from their earliest years to appreciate the cultures of their neighbors and even of their former enemies. If they, too, can see that these things are important for all of mankind and for them, they're not going to have this urge to destroy.