Peter Stone argues in the Art Newspaper that the UK ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention really is a big deal:
Is this really a big deal? Actually, yes it is, on all sorts of levels. Those of us in the heritage community are often told to stop complaining and to understand that in war things get damaged and destroyed. True, but from Sun Tzu in sixth-century BC China to Dwight Eisenhower in the 20th century, generals and military strategists have argued that the destruction of cultural heritage is bad military practice (not least because it frequently provides the first excuse for the next conflict).
There are at least seven different risks to heritage during conflict: lack of planning; spoils of war; collateral damage; military lack of awareness; looting; enforced neglect and specific targeting. All of them can be addressed to a greater or lesser extent, thereby reducing overall the impact. Protecting cultural heritage is not only important to specialised academic interests, heritage represents communal memory, and access to it has recently been argued to be a human right by the UN’s special rapporteur for cultural rights. It contributes to well-being and can foster post-conflict economic stability by encouraging tourism.
Finally, it is increasingly recognised as a military “force-multiplier”—protecting the heritage of your enemy may not win you many friends but it should ensure you do not make more enemies: a lesson hard-learnt from numerous recent cases where cultural heritage was ignored and not protected by occupying forces leading to unnecessary problems and casualties.
Peter Stone, Why ratifying the Hague Convention matters, The Art Newspaper (2016.11.29).
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.
In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.
She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:
Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.
Lauren Gelfond Feldinger has a report in the Art Newspaper to damage to Gaza’s cultural sites:
JERUSALEM. After a 3,500-year history of invasions, the latest war on the beleaguered coastal strip of Gaza has once again put historic sites at risk.
The fragile ceasefire in force at the time of writing has allowed some information to emerge about the fate of Gaza’s cultural heritage. Gaza’s only museum, a private antiquities museum run by Gazan contractor and collector Jawdat Khoudary, was badly damaged during Israel’s 22 days of air and land strikes. The glass doors and windows have been shattered and the roof and walls have been damaged. Roman and Byzantine pottery, Islamic bronze objects and many amphorae have been destroyed, initially during shooting 20m to 200m away, and later because of nearby shelling, with one direct hit to the museum’s conference hall, Mr Khoudary said. Amphorae, clay and ceramic vessels with two looped handles, were created in Gaza and the region during the fourth to seventh centuries for holding wine, olive oil and food and trading perishable commodities.
Meanwhile, anxieties are growing about the fate of the city’s antiquities. “I am very concerned: the entire Gaza Strip is an archaeological site,” Palestinian archaeologist Professor Moain Sadeq said.
Professor Sadeq founded the Palestinian Antiquities Department of Gaza in 1994, and is currently a visiting lecturer at the University of Toronto while in contact daily with Gaza. “Historical sites and buildings in Gaza are adjacent to urban areas, so any location that was hit as a target also put the nearby historical sites and buildings in danger,” he said. Major sites where damage is expected because of heavy fighting in adjacent areas include: Tell es-Sakan, an early Bronze Age settlement that is the largest and oldest walled Canaanite city in the local region, and the oldest Egyptian fortified site outside of Egypt; Tel el-Ajull, an important middle and late Bronze period city that was an important trade hub between ancient Egypt and the Levant; and the remains of Anthedon, a Hellenist port. The Byzantine church of Jabalya was also near heavy fighting, and was the site of partial damage by Israeli tanks during an incursion in 2005. Al-Zeitoun residential quarter in Gaza’s Old City, a medieval historic district, has also been largely destroyed, Professor Sadeq added.
Archaeologists are expecting assessment of all of Gaza’s historical sites to be slow. As humanitarian assistance is the urgent priority, serious archaeological surveys of historic sites will be delayed. “I hope that Israel and the Palestinians will work to restore the sites. I am worried about Gaza sites that were excavated and are above the ground because I am sure during the military activity that some sites have been damaged,” Dr Yigal Yisrael, of the Israel Antiquities Authority Ashkelon region and Western Negev said.
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Tom Hundley has a very long piece in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune on antiquities looting, Iraq, and Jim Cuno’s arguments (with slideshow). It’s an interesting read, as it summarizes nicely some of the problems with antiquities looting in Iraq, which he argues began in the difficult economic times after the first Iraq War.
At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S. economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds. Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in London and New York, no questions asked.
The article then goes on to summarize James Cuno’s views, and gives a very superficial discussion of national patrimony laws. He writes incorrectly I think that the Hague and UNESCO Conventions are the foundation for national patrimony laws. I think that’s a questionable assertion, as many patrimony laws were established long before these.
It is worth noting that there is a gross factual inaccuracy in the piece. Despite what the article says, the U.S. has ratified the 1954 Hague Convention. Perhaps Hundley should have spent a bit more time talking with Patty Gerstenblith, whom he quotes in the piece, or even Larry Rothfield — another Chicagoan — who has written a recent work on the looting in Iraq.
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On September 25th, the Senate gave its advice and consent and ratified the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The treaty was submitted to the Senate by President Clinton in 1999. You can read the statement submitted by the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, and other heritage advocacy groups here.
Pictured here is a “Blue Shield” in Austria I pulled from Flickr. The text reads:
“Protected by the convention of The Hague, dated 14 May 1954, for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. (BGBI. No. 58 3rd April 1964).”
I’m a bit surprised the ratification has not made any papers yet. Though a Presidential election and a world banking collapse certainly are taking their share of headlines; part of the reason may be that the Hague Convention was designed to prevent the kind of theft and widescale destruction which took place in World War II, as Larry Rothfield correctly points out.
As Rothfield notes:
A new and quite distinct danger has emerged in the half-century since the 1954 Convention, however. It comes not from military action, but from military inaction in the face of looting by civilians, fueled by the global market for antiquities that has boomed over the last few decades. While Hague leads the military to [focus] on avoiding harm, it imposes no requirement to actively protect cultural sites against the harm that comes from the breakdown in law and order and the concomitant surge in market-driven looting. The obligations it imposes on occupying powers, in fact, seem designed to limit the responsibility of occupiers for securing cultural property, with such responsibility applying only to “cultural property situated in occupied territory and damaged by military operations,” only when national authorities are unable to protect it, and even then only so far as possible. Since looting by civilians is not damage inflicted by military operations, Iraq’s archaeological sites are fair game and no necessary concern of the US military, which may in fact point to Hague as putting it off the hook for whatever goes wrong.
That succinctly points out the main flaws in the Hague framework. However Rothfield notes, and I wholeheartedly agree that the flaws in the Hague Convention certainly do not make ratification meaningless.
It officially adopts what had up to now been customary international law, and may help to aid and support the efforts of organizations like Blue Shield and others. Ultimately, the difficulty international treaties and lawmakers have had in regulating the rules of conflict to prevent the looting and destruction of sites may indicate how difficult it is to regulate armed conflict — and may perhaps be a powerful reason to avoid the use of force at all cost. As the Hague Testimony endorsed by heritage advocacy groups notes, adoption of the Convention “is a crucial step toward improving our foreign relations by sending a strong signal to all nations that the United States values their cultural heritage.”
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