Military Involvement in Cultural Property Protection: An Overview

By Kila, Joris D.; Herndon, Christopher V. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Military Involvement in Cultural Property Protection: An Overview


Kila, Joris D., Herndon, Christopher V., Joint Force Quarterly


In June 2009, the United States ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Con flict (the 1954 Hague Convention). This makes government protection of cultural property mandatory. Recent conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Mali, and Syria have triggered renewed interest in Cultural Property Protection (CPP). The obligations of CPP are included in international treaties and military regulations and complicated by various stakeholders with different levels of understanding and willingness to invest in training and application.

Because CPP includes a military responsibility to limit damage, it should be implemented before kinetic operations begin. Lack of CPP planning can exacerbate social disorder; eradicate national, ethnic, and religious identities; elicit international condemnation; and prolong conflict. If planned and executed correctly, CPP can be a force multiplier by concurrently contributing to international and domestic stability and goodwill. From this perspective, suggestions for general protection procedures and methods for implementing them against further disruption and damage are appropriate.

Historical Trends and Current Conditions

The vulnerability of cultural property to damage because of armed conflict is not new. Examples include the destruction of Carthage (149-146 BCE) and of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (48 BCE). A plethora of modern examples indicate that conflict-related destruction and looting of cultural property continue. Incidents from World War II are numerous and include the destruction of the famous Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy and damage to cultural property during the high intensity bombing of Germany.

During the current Syrian conflict, the shelling of national heritage sites including the Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, as well as citadels, mosques, temples, and tombs, has been reported. (1) Whether these are wanton acts of destruction, collateral damage, or iconoclasm is unclear.

In Mali, various United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites, which include mosques and mausoleums, were damaged or demolished in 2012 by the designated foreign terrorist organization Ansar Al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), which considers the shrines idolatrous. Several of the esteemed Timbuktu manuscripts consisting of scholarly works and letters from the 13 th century have also fallen victim to the Malian conflict. (Further research has found that only some of the manuscripts were destroyed.) Perpetrators and their intentions have been numerous and varied, and heritage crimes have been widespread. International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asserts, "those responsible could face prosecution as their actions constitute a war crime." This is important; crimes committed during conflict can be prosecuted by the ICC based on individual criminal responsibility. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the Rome Statute of 1998 of the ICC. Mali is a state party to The Hague Convention of 1954 and its First Protocol; however, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad, which occupied northern Mali in 2012, is not internationally recognized and is therefore not under the jurisdiction of this convention.

Military Involvement

Military involvement in CPP should be viewed through the lenses of two international legal instruments: the 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC and the 1954 Hague Convention for Protection of Cultural Property. In the current hybrid "four-block war" operational environment, where military forces engage in all conflict phases, circumstances involving heritage protection must be recognized and analyzed in their complexity to mitigate and hopefully prevent damage to national and regional cultural heritage and identities connected with such heritage.

Established legal instruments that hold both individuals and parties responsible for heritage crimes sometimes do not extend to all perpetrators. …

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