The lack of options to combat heritage loss in Syria

A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus are ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.
A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus a ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.

In remarks marking the opening of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany yesterday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asked for help from the international community:

Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action . . . Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the ‘Venice of the Sands’, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present. . .

That is a wonderful sentiment, and one I endorse, but note also that there are not calls for much in the way of concrete action. And that’s because short of military intervention there really is not much that can be done to dissuade those bent on erasing heritage. In a statement today the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated its deep concern about the situation in Palmyra:

Intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes . . .

So it may amount to war crimes, yet the International Criminal Court has no good opening to bring charges even if it wanted to. That’s because neither Syria nor Iraq has signed on to the ICC convention, and the individuals who commit this destruction are not high-profile enough it seems to warrant an ICC investigation and prosecution anyway. And so the end result is there is an accountability gap for this destruction.

Marina Lostal arrived at the disappointing conclusion that prosecution of ISIS iconoclasts is difficult under current law:

[T]he legal bases for prosecuting individuals for violations of the 1954 Hague Convention and the World Heritage Convention are largely absent. Those responsible may be prosecuted under the Syrian Antiquities Law, a law that was presumably approved independently of those conventions and hence present a number of caveats explained above. If the Chautauqua Blueprint is successful, it would turn a blind eye to three major causes of damage (viz. looting, use for military purposes, attacks against sites that constitute military objectives) allowing those behind this vicious circle of violations to “walk away.” This is especially frustrating if one takes into consideration that the driving force behind the adoption of conventional laws for the protection of cultural property has mostly been motivated by a desire to hold individuals accountable. The accountability gap shown in the case of Syria should serve those involved in the implementation of cultural heritage laws (e.g., UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee at the international level) as a warning that the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, or any other instrument before that, did not manage to have consequences for Bamiyan or beyond.

So if there is one thing that can be done, it may be to consider reforms to the current laws to hold those who destroy heritage individually accountable. But that change would have little impact on the current conflict in Syria.

DAVID RISING Associated Press, UN: Islamic State Destruction of Heritage Sites a War Crime, ABC News (Jun. 29, 2015), http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/islamic-state-destruction-heritage-sites-war-crime-32100589.

United Nations News Service Section, UN News – As World Heritage Committee opens session, UNESCO urges protection of sites targeted for destruction, UN News Service Section (Jun. 28, 2015), http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51279.

Sangwon Yoon, Islamic State Is Selling Looted Art Online for Needed Cash, Bloomberg.com, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-28/isis-has-new-cash-cow-art-loot-it-s-peddling-on-ebay-facebook.

Derek Fincham, Display of Islamic Art Exposes Terrorists’ Lie, Houston Chronicle, Apr. 3, 2015, http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Fincham-Display-of-Islamic-art-exposes-6178172.php.

Marina Lostal, Syria’s World Cultural Heritage and Individual Criminal Responsibility, 2015 International Review of Law 3 (2015).

 

UK Pledges to Ratify 1954 Hague Convention (again)

The UK seems poised to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Convention responded to the horrible theft and destruction which took place during World War II. The UK Government has at various points in the past indicated ratification of the Convention was imminent, including in 2004, as pointed out by the IAL blog. It was even an original signatory to the agreement when it was adopted. But ratification has been slow, even leading Colin Renfrew to accuse the UK of “dithering” over ratification. It seems that dithering may now be coming to an end. The new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has indicated he will introduce legislation to formally bring the UK in line with the 115 other countries which have ratified the Convention. The UK has claimed to have been in compliance with the Convention anyway, so the practical changes brought about by the UK ratification seems to be slight. But the symbolic effect is considerable.

In his statement Whittingdale said:

While the UK’s priority will continue to be the human cost of these horrific conflicts, the UK must also do what we can to prevent any further cultural destruction.The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its very identity. The knowledge and expertise of the experts in our cultural institutions makes us uniquely qualified to help. I believe that the UK therefore has a vital responsibility to support cultural protection overseas.

A terrific sentiment, and one that will hopefully will lead to ratification of the Convention.

Some of the other comments made by Whittingdale though may do more in the near term for heritage in conflict zones. He announced a new “cultural protection fund” which would help safeguard cultural heritage in conflict areas. Funding if deployed well could have a positive impact. He also announced a summit bringing together individuals from the government and institutions like the British Museum, the V&A, and perhaps others.

Palmyra as Propaganda Success

Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria
Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria

“We must try . . . to remain calm”.

So says Stefan Weber, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin in an interview with Sönje Storm of DWThe entire interview is well worth a read, but of particular note are his comments on how we can prepare for the time after the armed conflict in Syria, and how paying too much attention to the destruction at Palmyra can distract us from the human suffering taking place there, and also gives ISIS more credibility:

Continue reading “Palmyra as Propaganda Success”

Richard Prince’s Appropriation Isn’t New

Richard Prince's Instagram Prints at the GAgosian gallery, via
Richard Prince’s Instagram Prints at the Gagosian gallery, via artfcity

The terrific daily JSTOR points out that Richard Prince and his appropriation of Instagram photos is nothing new, in fact some argued his ideas weren’t even new 25 years ago:

Prince’s artistic practice has always been challenged by critics, though likewise his very forthright practice and process challenges viewers, gallerists, art patrons, and the public at large to consider and debate the very value of art and copyright, now questioning what it means to own, create, and appropriate public art in this digital age.

In a 1988 interview with Prince, Marvin Halferman asked about Warhol’s influence upon his photographic works, to which Prince responded, “I wanted to use photography because it has another…history. Painting, silk screen, drawing, they suggest something else. But photography suggested belief. It suggests fact. I thought that because I was choosing subject matter that was in fact, fiction, it might be better to use a factual medium to level that fiction, to occupy an area of ‘official fiction.’”

It seems that Prince’s blending of fact and fiction via photography has now expanded into the much murkier waters of social media, where an exponentially growing public archive is available to him as his medium.

Whether praised for his continued relevance in the conversation surrounding ownership and the digital archive or whether condemned for his lack of originality and accused of outright stealing, Prince continues to sell his work and name while sparking important and relevant conversations.

Cooke sums it up best back in ‘92 saying, “Whether it is encountered in actuality or in reproduction matters little, for Prince’s works function best when they act as reminders of themselves, as traces of what has already been seen, revealed, or known.” Instagram currently has 300 million active users who are likely intricately and personally embedded in this network of friends, family, celebrity, and strangers alike.

Lynne Cooke, Richard Prince. New York, Whitney Museum, 134 The Burlington Mag. 554 (1992).
Marvin Heiferman & Richard Prince, Richard Prince, BOMB 34 (1988).

5Pointz Suit Continues

5Pointz before it was whitewashed
5Pointz before it was whitewashed

The legal battle over 5Pointz has entered a new phase this week, as a complaint by some of the artists whose works were destroyed when the building was whitewashed has been filed in Federal Court. Though this may seem to be a new suit or new proceeding, it really should be viewed as a continuation of the dispute that has been ongoing since 2013 and earlier. Only instead of asking a court to prevent the destruction of the works at issue, now the artists are seeking compensation for the actual destruction of the works when they were whitewashed. Nicholas O’Donnell has kindly posted this new complaint on his blog, and he argues that one interesting thing to watch in the dispute, is the measure of damages: Continue reading “5Pointz Suit Continues”

Bauer on the Implications of the Destruction in Syria and Iraq

Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria
The Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria

Alexander Bauer, Chief Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Property has written an editorial arguing the destruction in Iraq and Syria though tragic also allows new approaches which can move beyond the old entrenched cultural property arguments. From the introduction:

In the dozen years I have edited the IJCP, I have chosen not to write editorials, as I have preferred to let the content of the journal speak for itself. As this issue was going to press, however, a series of events unfolded that I felt needed to be addressed. Over the past months, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (“IS”)—an armed militia with neo-medieval political aspirations in war-torn Syria and Iraq—has undertaken a direct assault on the archaeological remains of northern Mesopotamia, claiming that such art is idolatrous and thus forbidden in Islamic law. While looting of archaeological sites has been widespread and systematic in the region for at least the past two years, the destruction garnered international headlines in February and March 2015 when IS put sledgehammers to Assyrian statues and other artifacts in the museum of Mosul, then proceeded to bulldoze and ransack the spectacular sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, among others. The wantonness and scale of these destructive acts have been shocking, and certainly for anyone concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage, a terrible tragedy. This almost immediately brings to mind parallels with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose destruction fueled a resurgence of arguments in favor of Western museums’ collection of antiquities in order to “save” them from a similar fate. Of course, the Bamiyan episode was not so straightforward, and in some ways, the efforts of Western organizations to intervene on the Buddhas’ behalf may have made matters worse.  Arguably, the destruction in Iraq and Syria is even more widespread, insidious, and complicated. It is thus difficult to know how best to respond to it, and what the implications of any responses will be.

In spite of the complexity of the situation, I want to address and critically confront three reactions that are likely to develop or be reinvigorated within current debate on how to respond to such destruction. It is my hope that we can use these terrible events to discuss new ways of approaching the issues of heritage acquisition and preservation rather than fall back into old and counterproductive positions.

It’s an important statement, and one that the Journal has made publicly available free of charge.

Alexander A. Bauer, Editorial: The Destruction of Heritage in Syria and Iraq and Its Implications, 22 Int’l J. of Cultural Prop. 1 (2015).