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).

 

One Way to Counter Art Terrorists

Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015
Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015

I argue in a Saturday Op-Ed that one way to think about the iconoclasm of so-called Islamic State militants is to value the art they would destroy:

The Islamic State militants destroy art to send a powerful and destructive message: that learning, beauty and the transformational power of art has no place in any so-called Islamic State. We can expose the lie in this message in one simple way: by supporting ancient and contemporary art from the region.

Our city demonstrates how effective an ambassador art can be. Houston stands proud as one of America’s emerging cities for terrific art from all over the world, especially art from the Middle East. Works of art that formed the Houston-based FotoFest 2014 Biennial are currently on display at the Emirates Palace Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Also, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has an outstanding collection of Islamic art spanning the 9th to early 20th centuries; beautiful calligraphy and other decorative art that demonstrates the region’s commitment to learning and beauty.

We should encourage the MFA and other museums to responsibly display more works of Islamic art from this troubled region. By countering the vile message of the Islamic State by consuming and valuing Islamic art, we value and preserve what they would destroy.

The full piece is here.

Continue reading “One Way to Counter Art Terrorists”

Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus

A page from the Codex Calixtinus
A page from the Codex Calixtinus

This week sees the beginning of the trial of José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras, an electrician accused of stealing the 12th century illuminated manuscript from the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. The Codex was taken in July, 2011 and was recovered a year later in the garage of Castiñeiras.

The Codex contains illuminated sermons, music, descriptions of the pilgrimage on the Wa;y of St. James in Galicia in Spain. It is written in Latin, and Christopher Hohler the latin is intentionally bad, so that the text serves as a kind of grammar book. Even in the 12th century it seems students needed a lively picture and satire to get them to learn it seems. Writing in 1972 Hohler wrote that anyone used to reading 12th century Latin (which I am most certainly not) will: Continue reading “Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus”