The Identification and Protection of Cultural Heritage during the Iraq Conflict: A Peculiarly English Tale

By Stone, Peter | Antiquity, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Identification and Protection of Cultural Heritage during the Iraq Conflict: A Peculiarly English Tale


Stone, Peter, Antiquity


In the early months of 2003 there was much anxiety concerning what the British Government was doing to avoid damage to archaeological sites in the expectation of conflict in Iraq. Questions were asked in Parliament, appeals made to various government departments, and letters published in the national press. As reported in Antiquity's Editorial for June 2003 (Carver 2003a), scholars such as Lord Renfrew and Harriet Crawford and institutions such as the Archaeological Institute of America asked urgent questions of politicians, and made strong public statements, drawing attention to the imminent threat to the safety of Iraq's 25 000 archaeological sites and historic mosques, churches, forts, khans and treasures housed in museums and emphasising their duty of care. On 24 January, the White House and the Pentagon had been given a prioritised list of almost 200 sensitive sites.

In Britain some formal acknowledgement was achieved by Lord Renfrew in response to his question tabled in the House of Lords on 24 February concerning what 'measures [the Government] plan to implement, in the event of military intervention in Iraq, to prevent the looting of archaeological sites and museums, and to safeguard the rich historic, archaeological and cultural heritage of Iraq'. The Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Bach, assured him that 'very careful attention' was being applied to ensure that 'we minimise the risk of damage from any quarter to civilian populations and infrastructure, including sites of historic, archaeological, and cultural heritage' (PQ Ref No 1953N). In the House of Commons, veteran Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell (who has had a lifetime interest in archaeology; Dalyell 2002) was assured by the Prime Minister that the Government was not only fully committed to the protection of cultural property but that (quite correctly) it had obligations to protect sites under the Geneva Conventions. He ended his response by stating 'we will do everything we can to make sure that sites of cultural or religious significance are properly and fully protected' (Hansard 19 March 2003; Column 940).

The public expressions of anxiety by numerous institutions were not necessarily intended to add opposition to the war, but to offer advice and assistance in the business of protecting sites. A key agency was the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), the organisation established by International Charter (the 1954 Hague Convention) to protect cultural heritage by co-ordinating preventative measures to meet and respond to emergency situations, both natural and man-made. Through the Second Protocol to The Hague Convention (adopted in 1999, though still not in force in March 2003 as the requisite 20 states had not ratified it) the ICBS has a particular and specialised role to advise the Convention's Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In its statement of 7 March, the ICBS, having urged all governments concerned in the potential conflict to 'work within the spirit of' the 1954 Hague Convention and to protect 'archives, libraries, monuments and sites, and museums', went on to offer technical assistance and co-ordination. It called upon 'all governments in a position to act to provide the necessary resources, human and financial, to assess the damage caused by the conflict to cultural heritage and to implement plans for the necessary repair and restoration. In the case of looting of cultural property, detailed plans by trained experts should be prepared for the repatriation or restitution of the property concerned, with the involvement of Iraqi scholars and heritage professionals'. The statement ended by calling upon all governments which had not yet become party to the Hague Convention and its two protocols to do so. This latter statement was aimed, one assumes directly at the USA and UK, as neither had signed. The Second Iraq War began on 20 March 2003. Public pressure concerning the identification and protection of the archaeological cultural heritage took second place to widespread concern over the possibility of the invasion provoking biological and/or chemical war. …

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