Did UN Troops Violate the 1954 Hague Convention?

I am just catching up on this story, but it strikes me as particularly troubling. 6,000 year-old paintings of animal and human figures have been spray-painted over by UN peacekeepers in the Western Sahara. The UN personnel with the Minurso mission in the Western Saraha signed and dated their work, and in some cases revealed their identities. As the Times reported back in January:

One Croatian peacekeeper scrawled “Petar CroArmy” across a rock face. Extensive traces of pigment from rock painting are visible underneath. Another left behind Cyrillic graffiti, and “Evgeny” from Russia scribbled AUI, the code for the Minurso base at Aguanit. “Mahmoud” from Egypt left his mark at Rekeiz Lemgasem, and “Ibrahim” wrote his name and number over a prehistoric painting of a giraffe. “Issa”, a Kenyan major who signed his name and wrote the date, had just completed a UN course, Ethics in Peacekeeping, documents show.

The Middle East Online reported that Morocco’s director of national heritage has accused the UN forces of graffiti on ancient sites, but also the theft of cave paintings, desecrating graves, and removing engraved paving stones.

Such disregard for important heritage of course implicates the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. To add to the difficulty, the head of the UN mission in Western Sahara (Minurso), seems to have bungled an apology, and served to incite more unrest between the groups he should be monitoring.

I’d really recommend those interested to have a look at what David Nishimura has to say on this, as I picked up the story from him. He notes the parallels with the coverage of the theft of objects from the Iraqi Museum, and the part coalition forces may have played in the looting of the museum in Baghdad. However he notes “the greatest damage in Iraq has been indirect, a consequence of civil disorder, rather than the direct result of military action. The vandalism in the Sahara is particularly shocking due to its deliberateness and the identity of those responsible, along with the complete lack of mitigating circumstances.”

I think that’s exactly right, and this story has received very little media attention in the West, particularly in the United States. There was a lot of legitimate outrage at the actions of the US military on the heels of the looting of the Baghdad Museum, however the actions of these UN forces deserves an equal measure of outrage in my view, and the troops responsible should be subjected to criminal penalties for looting and vandalizing these sites. Sadly, I think this reveals just how ineffective the international legal regime has been in protecting sites during armed conflict.

I know by monitoring the url logs that this site attracts some interest of journalists, notably when some of my ideas may prove useful for a story, which is great. However rather than writing the same story about Marion True for example, why not broaden coverage to encompass the full nature and extent of the antiquities problem?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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