As tensions escalate in the Middle East, US President Donald Trump has threatened to strike targets in Iran should they seek to retaliate over the killing of Qassem Soleimani. According to the president’s tweet, these sites includes those that are ‘important to Iran and Iranian culture’.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was quick on Monday to rule out any such action and acknowledged that the US would ‘follow the laws of armed conflict’. But Trump has not since commented further on the matter.
Any move to target Iranian cultural heritage could constitute a breach of the international laws protecting cultural property. Attacks on cultural sites are deemed unlawful under two United Nations conventions; the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict, and the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
These have established deliberate attacks on cultural heritage (when not militarily necessary) as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in recognition of the irreparable damage that the loss of cultural heritage can have locally, regionally and globally.
These conventions were established in the aftermath of the Second World War, in reaction to the legacy of the massive destruction of cultural property that took place, including the intense bombing of cities, and systematic plunder of artworks across Europe. The conventions recognize that damage to the cultural property of any people means ‘damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind’. The intention of these is to establish a new norm whereby protecting culture and history – that includes cultural and historical property – is as important as safeguarding people.
Such historical sites are important not simply as a matter of buildings and statues, but rather for their symbolic significance in a people’s history and identity. Destroying cultural artefacts is a direct attack on the identity of the population that values them, erasing their memories and historical legacy. Following the heavy bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, one resident summed up the psychological impact of such destruction in observing that ‘you expect people to die, but you don’t expect the buildings to die’.
Targeting sites of cultural significance isn’t just an act of intimidation during conflict. It can also have a lasting effect far beyond the cessation of violence, hampering post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction, where ruins or the absence of previously significant cultural monuments act as a lasting physical reminder of hostilities.
For example, during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the Old Bridge in Mostar represented a symbol of centuries of shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence between the Serbian and Croat communities. The bridge’s destruction in 1993 at the height of the civil war and the temporary cable bridge which took its place acted as a lasting reminder of the bitter hostilities, prompting its reconstruction a decade later as a mark of the reunification of the ethnically divided town.
More recently, the destruction of cultural property has been a feature of terrorist organizations, such as the Taliban’s demolition of the 1,700-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, eliciting international condemnation. Similarly, in Iraq in 2014 following ISIS’s seizure of the city of Mosul, the terrorist group set about systematically destroying a number of cultural sites, including the Great Mosque of al-Nuri with its leaning minaret, which had stood since 1172. And in Syria, the ancient city of Palmyra was destroyed by ISIS in 2015, who attacked its archaeological sites with bulldozers and explosives.
Such violations go beyond destruction: they include the looting of archaeological sites and trafficking of cultural objects, which are used to finance terrorist activities, which are also prohibited under the 1954 Hague Convention.
As a war crime, the destruction of cultural property has been successfully prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, which sentenced Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi to nine years in jail in 2016 for his part in the destruction of the Timbuktu mausoleums in Mali. Mahdi led members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to destroy mausoleums and monuments of cultural and religious importance in Timbuktu, irreversibly erasing what the chief prosecutor described as ‘the embodiment of Malian history captured in tangible form from an era long gone’.
Targeting cultural property is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, not only by the Hague Convention. But the Convention sets out detailed regulations for protection of such property, and it has taken some states a lot of time to provide for these.
Although the UK was an original signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention, it did not ratify it until 2017, introducing into law the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017, and setting up the Cultural Protection Fund to safeguard heritage of international importance threatened by conflict in countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
Ostensibly, the UK’s delay in ratifying the convention lay in concerns over the definition of key terms and adequate criminal sanctions, which were addressed in the Second Protocol in 1999. However, changing social attitudes towards the plunder of antiquities, and an alarming increase in the use of cultural destruction as a weapon of war by extremist groups to eliminate cultures that do not align with their own ideology, eventually compelled the UK to act.
In the US, it is notoriously difficult to get the necessary majority for the approval of any treaty in the Senate; for the Hague Convention, approval was achieved in 2008, following which the US ratified the Convention in 2009.
Destroying the buildings and monuments which form the common heritage of humanity is to wipe out the physical record of who we are. People are people within a place, and they draw meaning about who they are from their surroundings. Religious buildings, historical sites, works of art, monuments and historic artefacts all tell the story of who we are and how we got here. We have a responsibility to protect them.
Héloïse Goodley, Army Chief of General Staff Research Fellow (2018–19), International Security.