Protecting the World's Cultural Heritage

Article excerpt

FIVE years ago, beginning in March 2003, the United States, Britain and Australia invaded Iraq. Among the casualties were the valuable items of cultural heritage held in such places as the Iraq Museum, National Library, National Archives and the Religious Library--all located in Baghdad. Destruction and looting were also carried out at other locations in Iraq. Iraq is one of the world's most significant places for archaeology, with some sites and artefacts going back 10,000 years. This was the cradle of civilization. Babylon, capital of the ancient Babylonia, is about 100 kilometres south of Baghdad.

This article begins with an overview of why cultural property is attacked or stolen. This is complicated by the problem of looting and the transfer of cultural items to overseas museums. The article then looks at the current Iraqi situation. It concludes with an examination of the measures to protect cultural property and calls on the countries (including Britain and the United States) that have not yet accepted those measures to do so.

Cultural property is often targeted in wars. This is nothing new as the Bible recounts how the Philistines and the Babylonians carried off the Ark of the Covenant, containing the original Ten Commandments given to Moses, which was sacred to the people of Israel.

Looting cultural property is a way of 'attacking' the enemy population by destroying their institutional memory. In the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, for example, the ethnic groups deliberately targeted the buildings, monuments and bridges of the other side to 'cleanse' their presence from the area. On November 9, 1993, a Croatian army tank deliberately shelled the Stari Most ('The Old Bridge') the symbol of Mostar's multicultural past. The bridge was built in 1566 by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and was one of the most famous in eastern Europe.

This destruction not only robs a country of its own heritage but it also destroys the capacity of everyone else much later on to get to know about that past. It has gone forever.

Another motivation for vandalism is a religious desire to destroy artworks of a different religious persuasion. The most common form of religious-based vandalism now comes from the rise of some Islamic fundamentalists. They are trying to eradicate the pre-Islamic history of their countries.

The most famous example was the Taliban's destruction of the two colossal stone Buddhas of Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan on March 9 2001 (six months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States). (1) Afghanistan is on one of the most travelled routes in the world--the Silk Road--with many civilizations having moved across the rugged country between Europe and Asia. The giant stone Buddhas had been carved into the rocks for about 1700 years. They stood about 38 metres and 55 metres high. It took several hundred kilos of TNT to blast them away.

The Taliban, who a few years earlier had invited the Saudi Arabian terrorist, Osama bin Laden to be based in their country, reinvented the country as a fundamentalist Islamic state. The Taliban (originally a movement of religious scholars) regarded the Buddhas as the 'shrines of infidel' and ordered their destruction. Many Western governments asked the Taliban Government not to do so--but all the pleas were ignored.

Similarly, if fundamentalist Muslims ever took power in Egypt they would probably destroy the antique collections of items relating to, for example, the Pharaohs. They would like to destroy the country's pre-lslamic heritage. This is also one of the reasons why they attack foreign tourists-they do not want people visiting the pyramids.

Finally, there is also pillaging for profit. As the 2003 looting of the Baghdad museums showed, there is often a great deal of money to be made from stolen antiquities. The international police agency INTERPOL says in general terms that there is a recovery rate of only about 12 per cent for stolen artworks. …