1. The Problem

When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or sometimes ISIS or Da’esh) took the city of Palmyra in the summer of 2015, major media outlets aired and popularized the widespread concerns of archaeologists, historians, curators, and other specialists who long had warned that the ancient ruins in the city were at risk. Within weeks, their fears were realized when ISIL directed large-scale attacks on the ruins of the ancient city, including exploding the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin. For international audiences, the dramatic images of the destruction were linked to the ongoing murder, human trafficking, slavery, and terror that ISIL regularly inflicted on populations whose views, both religious and secular, differed from their own. ISIL’s destruction of cultural heritage has stretched across Syria and Iraq, and other Al-Qaida-affiliated groups have wrought similar destruction in Africa.

These cases have captured international attention, but the destruction of cultural heritage is not limited to terrorist groups or even nonstate actors, although other dramatic destruction took place by insurgents who deliberately shelled the Mostar Bridge in 1993 and the fabled mosques, mausoleums, and libraries of Timbuktu in 2012. Afghan government forces, controlled by the Taliban at the time, dynamited the fourth- and fifth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. Saudi Arabian bombing continues to wreak havoc on cultural heritage sites in Yemen.

Such wanton destruction is not new. The post–Cold War cases have riveted attention on certain battles or militant groups, but the destruction of cultural heritage has long characterized behavior by belligerents in many wars and by victors following them—“to the victors go the spoils” is an accurate description for domestic and foreign battles. For example, the site of the Great Mosque of Córdoba—now a Catholic cathedral—originally hosted a small Visigoth church, which was replaced by the mosque in the eighth century, which was subsequently supplanted by the massive cathedral built during the Reconquista. In some cases of empire, destruction and replacement of cultural heritage were systematic practices across broad territories as part of an effort to assert the new orthodoxy and erase history and culture—what the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) outgoing director-general Irina Bokova repeatedly has called “cultural cleansing.” This expression is not a legal term, but UNESCO applies it routinely to connote cultural removal akin to “ethnic cleansing”—a term coined in the early 1990s to describe mass atrocities in the former in the former Yugoslavia, which also has no formal legal definition. Cultural cleansing and ethnic cleansing are evocative; both capture dramatic crimes that shock the human conscience.

This chapter seeks to clarify the nature of the problem of protecting cultural heritage in wars by examining definitions of commonly used terms; the various categories of destruction; the costs and benefits of such damage; and options going forward.

Cultural Heritage

This report employs the term “cultural heritage,” which is now widespread, although earlier legal instruments use the term “cultural property.” There is no agreed distinction between the two, and they are used interchangeably. However, some observers see the former as being broader in scope and implying less personal and more widespread “ownership”; in any case, “cultural heritage” is now more widely used, including here.

“Cultural heritage” has many definitions, and a helpful place to start are those enumerated in UNESCO conventions that have garnered a degree of international consensus. The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict defines “cultural property” as:

  1. movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above;
  2. buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a);
  3. centres containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in subparagraphs (a) and (b), to be known as ‘centers containing monuments.’ (Chapter 1, Article 1)

The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defines cultural property as:

property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science. (Article 1)

Finally, the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage defines “cultural property” in terms of three categories:

monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements of structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view. (Section I, Article 1)

The unifying feature of these three definitions is the identification of the “value” or “importance” of an item as the criterion in determining its status as “cultural property,” or for us “cultural heritage.” The 1972 definition, in particular, repeats under each category the “outstanding universal value” of an artifact or site that elevates it to protected status; the 1954 definition implies the same by pointing to “the cultural heritage of every people.” That effort to signal the shared human value of immovable and movable cultural heritage, not just of those who have inherited directly or indirectly its influence, stands in stark contrast to the 1970 state-centric definition that makes “cultural property” contingent on a self-proclaimed designation by a state.

These differences reflect the historical contexts in which the documents were drafted and the prevailing political logics at the time. The 1954 convention aims to establish certain protections for cultural heritage sites and artifacts in war zones for the benefit of all humanity. By 1970, however, postcolonial sensitivities and accompanying nationalist sentiments placed more emphasis on policies to protect the cultural artifacts remaining in the territory of newly independent states as the property of the state. This latter convention is concerned more with interdiction of trafficking, whereas the 1954 convention focuses on prevention of destruction. From our vantage point, the 1970 approach prioritizes the accidents of geography and the shape of arbitrarily drawn borders and contemporary political configurations—such as the consolidations of Germany and Yemen, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, and the division of Sudan—over any intrinsic value of cultural heritage for humanity as a whole.

More than one observer has pointed to the irony: as the world grows smaller and more connected through the forces of globalization, modern states claim exclusive ownership over shared cultural heritage. Cosmopolitan perspectives, or cultural internationalism, become politically incorrect as cultural nationalism comes to the fore.

State-centric views predictably still characterize intergovernmental deliberations, but they also present obvious barriers to effective protection when what is required clashes with what a state decides to do. For example, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas may not have constituted a loss of cultural heritage according to the 1970 convention, because the Taliban government representing the Afghan state did not view them as such. In addition, the protection of the cultural heritage of minority groups—of Rohinga and Uyghur mosques in Myanmar and China’s Xinjiang province, or churches and synagogues in Syria, or Yazidi shrines anywhere—depends on the designation by and request from a government that may or may not value them and in many cases is committed to destroying them. Inadequate international and national laws and the absence of enforcement mechanisms render immovable heritage especially vulnerable. Consequently, the universality of the value of cultural heritage enshrined in the 1954 convention does more to advance contemporary international efforts to protect cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict than state-based conceptions of cultural property.

Building on the criterion of the universal value of cultural heritage, but rejecting the logic that states alone are empowered to recognize or deny that value, James Cuno’s straightforward definition of “cultural heritage” is used here: “movable and immovable artifacts and immovable structures of historical and cultural significance to humanity.” It is broad enough to capture the range of cases at stake, yet narrow enough to serve as a guide for policy- and decision-making.

This circumscribed definition has three features that provide guidance. First, it is limited to tangible heritage to the exclusion of intangible heritage (e.g., language, cuisine, and dance). Intangible heritage is not less worthy of protection—quite the contrary, as the destruction or disruption of any culture is damaging to the health of societies and makes turning the page after armed conflicts and peacebuilding problematic. However, in terms of political mobilization, international consensus and action are more feasible around narrowly defined threshold conditions. Such an approach does not preclude subsequent efforts to protect “softer” values claimed for cultural heritage, but it is important to start somewhere. The possibility for and viability of any new international framework for the protection of cultural heritage will be bolstered if what is to be protected is visible, measurable, and tangible.

Second, the definition excludes natural heritage because its value is different. While armed conflicts cause the deterioration or even destruction of the natural environment, it is important to distinguish it from the artifacts and sites that are significant expressions of human creativity, experience, and aspirations.

Third, the definition and the analysis should not be limited to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Countless endangered sites of worship, cemeteries, and local monuments are of significance to local populations; they merit protection on these grounds with or without international recognition. Moreover, their destruction almost always provides early warning about a forthcoming genocide or war crimes, disrupts social stability, and impedes or destroys the basis for postconflict peacebuilding and economic development. In addition, international actions, including intervention, that protect only the most visible and well-recognized heritage will inevitably raise questions about the motives and legitimacy of those coming to the rescue.

Destruction of Cultural Heritage

UNESCO identifies four causes of destruction related to armed conflicts: intentional damage, collateral damage, forced neglect, and organized looting and illicit trafficking. Each entails different motives or conditions, and thus each merits tailored responses.

Intentional, or strategic, damage results from attacks on cultural heritage as a weapon of war, specifically targeted in order to gain advantage in an armed conflict. Such damage may include attacks on culture by virtue of their inherent value to a population (such as places of worship or cemeteries), or attacks on strategic infrastructure that has cultural value (such as a historic and architecturally unique bridge).

Deliberate attacks on culture for culture’s sake in wars consist of two categories, and both constitute a strategic cultural cleansing. The first, attacks on the cultural institutions of current populations, are indicative of the intention to commit genocide or ethnic cleansing—in fact, they are tools to accomplish both. Raphael Lemkin—both the motivating spirit behind as well as drafter of important language in the 1948 Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—originally had included the destruction of culture in the draft convention as a component of genocide. The governmental delegates in the final negotiations of the convention decided to focus on the concrete physical and biological aspects of genocide rather than on the arguably vaguer cultural and social elements found in earlier drafts. The second group, attacks on antiquity, are not an attempt to erase the contributions or existence of any living people or peoples. However, they are a form of cultural erasure, usually in the service of a competing historical narrative and as part of a strategic calculation, once again to solidify the postbattle position of the victors.

Collateral damage occurs when armed conflict rages near immovable cultural heritage and artifacts; it results from a battle, training, or military presence. Indeed, the leveling of infrastructure, and of cultural heritage, has always been an inevitable part of war. Today it has become worse as the destructive power of weaponry has increased. The damaged heritage is not a target in itself. For example, since 2011, the Crusaders’ Crac des Chevaliers, Syria’s most important medieval castle and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has suffered severely during the civil war. Civilians and rebel fighters barricaded themselves in the fortress for months, using it as shelter and exploiting its value as an ancient military stronghold after the Syrian Arab Army blockaded their village. Government forces eventually launched a series of airstrikes as they closed in on the villagers, inflicting structural damage to the walls and one of the towers, in addition to widespread damage to the overall appearance. Syria’s Qal’at Salah El-Din, another medieval fortress, has suffered a similar fate. As the violence was not designed specifically to target the castle but rather the opposition inside, the damage can be classified as “collateral” or incidental. The damage, of course, is not necessarily less devastating than it would have been from strategic targeting.

Forced neglect describes a broad category of destruction to and deterioration of cultural heritage that results from armed conflicts. Such damage may occur because the local populations have left the region, war has made access impossible, or maintenance budgets and equipment have been reallocated to meet wartime needs. The damage thus is an indirect consequence of armed conflict but, again, may be substantial.

Finally, organized looting and illicit trafficking serve primarily as a fundraising device in territories rich in archaeological sites; groups raid them and use the pillage to finance the armed conflict. In March 2016, Russia estimated that ISIL derives between $150 and $200 million per year in revenue from the trafficking of antiquities. This figure has been disputed and cannot be verified, but that pillaged cultural heritage has been sold by ISIL to help finance its widespread territorial acquisitions has not.

Costs and Benefits

Many costs and benefits are associated with the destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts. Parsing them is important when designing cost-effective and logical policy responses.

The most obvious costs of war are borne by vulnerable populations, which can be measured in loss of lives and livelihoods, reduced longevity, infant stunting—and the list goes on. In terms of cultural heritage, the destruction of tangible and intangible heritage sounds an alarm bell for a forthcoming genocide or ethnic cleansing; targeted destruction of cultural heritage, as experienced during Kristallnacht in 1938, has occurred regularly. Curators and archivists, recognizing the warning signals, have died while attempting to save heritage in the face of early violent attacks.

While these human costs are apparent, often lost in the conversation are other consequences. First, the destruction of cultural heritage is ruinous for cultural identity and social cohesion. The buildings, museums, libraries, and infrastructure around which societies organize themselves in part help define a people. Second, especially in cases of high-profile sites, destruction can severely impair postcrisis economic recovery and remove investment opportunities. The economics of postconflict investment are often overlooked. With the loss of tourist attractions comes the concomitant loss of investment opportunities as well as the loss of jobs related to care and upkeep, and revenue derived from a healthy tourism industry. Third, the destruction of heritage during war deepens the wounds and intensifies lingering animosities and the accounts to be settled afterward. For this reason, the Dayton Accords addressed the reconstruction of lost heritage as an essential component of the peace agreement, as a prelude to the next steps in peacebuilding in the Balkans.

In addition, when cultural heritage is destroyed, there are costs to us all, to humanity as a whole. Many observers view culture as a shared endeavor across peoples and time, or as evidence of a shared humanity. There exists the possibility of connecting to long-lost or faraway peoples, and experiencing their cultures—through travel to cultural sites, visiting a museum, or reading primary texts—is a time-tested way of doing so. When we lose culture, we lose this opportunity. Further, the loss of cultural artifacts and sites precludes any future study and possibly forecloses the resolution of open archaeological, anthropological, and historical questions.

One might compare such losses to the disappearance of species and biodiversity. Exact costs are difficult to calculate, but wars and destruction of cultural heritage are dramatic deviations from healthy, vibrant communities with a strong sense of identity and stable grounding. In them, the conditions for the full functioning of society, including peace and security, are deeply compromised.

However, there are also “benefits” from the destruction of cultural heritage enjoyed by pariah groups that profit from pillage and publicity. Armed groups have recently been in a position to use cultural destruction as a profitable war tactic. Dismantling ancient infrastructure or targeting the cultural heritage of a particular population makes possible looting and trafficking. It also has enabled “beneficial” public relations and outreach via social media that apparently have been helpful for recruitment.

Going Forward

Efforts to build international consensus around a more effective framework for the protection of cultural heritage may take one of two forms: the formulation of a new norm; or building on the existing consensus enshrined in disparate international legal instruments. The pluses and minuses of each merit our attention.

The cultivation of a new norm holds promise because it could formulate more precise expectations around notions of “ownership” and the meaning of “the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflicts.” Although necessarily building on the agreement that such destruction is illicit—found in peace treaties and numerous conventions—a new framework could synthesize a more visible and recognizable set of rules that could publicize and be tailored to a specific set of definitions and thresholds, and incorporate directly the reality of nonstate actors. Effective enforcement mechanisms, perhaps under UN Charter Chapter VII, would be part of the assignment. Any new framework, however, requires lobbying and coalition-building ahead of any formal adoption and buy-in by UN member states. Such an effort is no small task when “intervention” of any variety is under consideration, and when so many competing crises—from climate change to pandemics and proliferation—are vying for public and private attention and resources. However, the R2P case suggests that norm entrepreneurship not only is possible but also can be beneficial.

In contrast, building on consensus leverages the political capital that already exists. Forms of destruction of cultural heritage are already considered war crimes—confirmed by the 2016 decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi—and, by implication, crimes against humanity. Thus, it may be possible to bolster the efficacy of such law through more protocols and additional signatories to existing instruments. This strategy lacks the energy-mobilizing potential and excitement of a concerted new campaign, but it could prove attractive in an international arena with many other crises and priorities crowding governmental and intergovernmental agendas and vying for their attention.