Last edited 10 Oct 2020

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Protecting cultural heritage during armed conflict

Aleppo.jpg
Before the civil war, Aleppo was the largest city in Syria with a major commercial centre and a rich architectural heritage. (Photo: iStock.com/jasminam).

One critical question often raised about the protection of cultural property during armed conflict is whether allocating precious time and resources to saving ‘stones’ is a priority, or even ethical, while there are more important humanitarian emergencies on the ground. For a legal answer, one can refer to international humanitarian law (IHL), under which cultural property belonging to any people should be respected and safeguarded during armed conflict. The international rules for the protection of cultural property were set out in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Later, the 1977 additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 and the 1999 Second Protocol to The Hague Convention strengthened the IHL with respect to cultural property protection (CPP), which is the duty of all the parties of the Hague Convention to uphold.

Under Article 8 of the 1998 ICC statute, ‘intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments’ is recognised as a war crime. However, the recent and often deliberate heritage destruction in the Middle East and north Africa imply that one must also look for other reasons that establish a basis for the protection of cultural property in times of conflict. The significance associated with heritage can be aesthetic, historical, scientific, social, economic, and spiritual, and its definition has become broader, now embracing various places and forms of culture with local value. This can include anything from gardens and landscapes and living cultural heritage, to audio-visual cultural materials, archives, and, crucially, places and objects associated with memories that define the identities of ordinary people. In this context, CPP is not just about safeguarding those stones and sites admired by archaeologists and tourists; it can be considered a fundamental human right, and thus – as stated by Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights – it is ‘not separable from the people itself’. Safeguarding cultural heritage in times of armed conflict and other crises, therefore, is a humanitarian action and a good basis for CPP, and it is important that planning for risk preparedness and risk mitigation strategies occur before heritage places are targeted or damaged.

The intentional destruction of cultural heritage, a practice performed by extremists for various reasons, can also fuel ethno-religious hatred and lead to more violence. Therefore, it should be treated as a global security threat. As noted in the 2017 book ‘Heritage and Peacebuilding’ by Diana Walters, Daniel Laven, and Peter Davis, the potential constructive role of heritage in the process of peacebuilding and reconciliation in war-torn societies makes its protection and recovery a priority. Cultural heritage is not only a thread of continuity, but the architecture with which it is associated can also provide shelter and housing, and contributes to the economy and development of communities.

Palmyra and the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria present two different types of cultural heritage at risk due to conflict, both tangible and intangible. The archaeological ruins of Palmyra represent outstanding architectural styles and urban development from ancient times. The destruction of some of its main features by the so-called, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), included temples, the triumphal arch, tower tombs, and the museum, to deliberately reject the historical and aesthetic values associated with the sites.

Before the Syrian civil war, Aleppo was the largest city in the country with a population of over two million, and it was a major commercial and industrial centre of modern Syria. The protection of Aleppo’s heritage is not just about safeguarding its extraordinary examples of ancient structures and architecture, including the Umayyad mosques and the citadel, but also the socioeconomic vitality of the historic city centre and the way of life, traditions, knowledge, craftsmanship, and social practices embedded in the spirit of the place that should be recovered. These interlinked and multi-faceted values are the reason why this continuously inhabited historic city should have been protected and why its post-conflict recovery is a priority for Syria.

Strategies for developing risk preparedness for endangered sites

In the face of armed conflict, the main questions for the cultural heritage sector are how to protect the heritage, or at least, reduce and/or mitigate possible damage, as well as how to provide emergency response to damaged cultural heritage sites to prevent further damage and loss, and recover the impacted heritage. The Hague Convention and its 1999 Second Protocol not only provide a legal framework for the protection of heritage in times of conflict, but they suggest peacetime preparatory measures that should be undertaken by state parties to the convention. These measures, specified in Article 3 of the 1999 Second Protocol to The Hague Convention include, ‘the preparation of inventories, the planning of emergency measures for protection against fire or structural collapse, the preparation for the removal of movable cultural property or the provision for adequate in situ protection of such property, and the designation of competent authorities responsible for the safeguarding of cultural property’. The implementation of these measures is left to each state, and the protocol does not provide any further details. The limits of these measures depend on each country’s financial resources, national or domestic laws, administrative structure, and technical and scientific capacities.

The preparation of inventories and documentation is a pivotal element of any preparedness, mitigation, and recovery action for cultural heritage and should be treated as the very first step. Documentation should record what exists as cultural heritage resources, but also, it should identify threats and vulnerabilities of heritage sites. Although we might think that all significant heritage and archaeological sites have been identified and recorded, archaeologists and heritage professionals still must find and record each one that’s likely to be affected. Projects like Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA), funded by the Arcadia Fund and the Cultural Protection Fund (CPF) and based at the universities of Oxford, Leicester, and Durham, try to fill in the gaps in documentation and heritage inventory in the sector by rapidly recording the fundamental information of endangered sites, their condition, and level of risk posed by using satellite imagery and other available resources (see the EAMENA website for more detail). Recording heritage sites and monitoring their conditions help the heritage authorities and national stakeholders to prioritise sites for preparedness and mitigation actions.

In recent years, the role of 3D documentation in recording and preserving information about endangered sites and its potential use in post-conflict reconstruction has been highlighted. However, in the age of fast-growing digital technologies, it should be emphasised that all new techniques must serve cultural heritage protection, and while 3D documentation does play an important role, it is not the end goal of this process as it cannot replace the authenticity of the cultural heritage.

Strategies for preparedness should start by assessing risks to identify, analyse, and evaluate threats and their possible magnitude and effects on cultural heritage, and its associated significance. Risk identification involves understanding and assessing the values, both tangible and intangible, that are attributed to cultural heritage because it is these that are to be protected. When assessing significance, the local community should be consulted and their perspectives on different aspects considered.

The vulnerabilities of a heritage site or collection to various combinations of risks and the potential impact of each combination must also be analysed. Armed conflicts usually lead to complex emergency situations with a total or considerable breakdown of authority, displacement of people, and widespread damage to societies and economies. In this situation, the nature of risk is dynamic and can evolve while conflict and its consequences are unfolding. New and different risks to the cultural heritage may arise in various phases of a conflict, and thus, it is essential to constantly assess risks and their potential impacts.

As outlined by Rohit Jigyasu, Joseph King and Gamini Wijesuriya in ‘Managing Disaster Risks for World Heritage’, by developing disaster scenarios based on the cause-effect relationship of primary and secondary risks, it may be possible to adopt a range of risk preparedness strategies, including disaster-prevention and mitigation measures. For example, one of the measures for fire prevention in a historic building can be avoiding, eliminating, moving, or securing sources of ignition (heat) and fuel. Evacuation of artefacts and cultural objects from museums and collections can also be considered when the threat is imminent, in situ protection is impossible, and a safe refuge is available.

In Syria, the directorate general of antiquities and museums (DGAM) evacuated hundreds of statues and busts from the ancient ruins of Palmyra and its museum before ISIS captured the area in 2015. The artefacts were moved to a safe haven in Damascus, as reported in an article by CNN correspondent, Frederik Pleitgen. Later, ISIS militants destroyed the larger artefacts that had not been evacuated from the museum together with some of the ancient monuments of the site.

The museum of Ma’arrat Al-Numan, housed in the old Ottoman Murad Pasha caravanserai in north western Syria, contains a remarkable collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics and artefacts from the Dead Cities, as well as Ebla. In 2016, local volunteers and archaeologists undertook efforts to protect a part of the collection by using sandbags and other techniques used since the first world war. The museum and its historic structure sustained heavy damage during several conflict episodes and aerial barrel bombings, but damage to the protected mosaics was limited according to a report by the Day After Heritage Protection Initiative.

The lack of any reliable in situ protection for monuments and sites, especially when parties involved in armed conflict deliberately breach international laws and target heritage, led to the Italian proposal to the UN General Assembly in 2016 for including CPP in the mandate of international peacekeeping missions. The proposal involved creating the ‘Blue Helmets for Cultural Heritage’ or, ‘cultural peacekeeping’, a multitasking unit of military, police, and heritage experts to be deployed in conflict zones. The primary role of such a unit would be to implement international law, particularly the Hague Convention, securing sites and heritage places by deploying military forces, preventing illicit trafficking and looting of cultural properties, promoting heritage recovery and reconstruction, and providing technical assistance to local authorities. While the process of creating this unit is still awaiting high level political, financial, and international support, one can expect to see the cultural Blue Helmets embroiled in the same debates and ambivalences that exist around humanitarian intervention. There is great potential for such an international campaign for heritage peacekeeping to be labelled crusaders or neo-colonialists by opponents, as stated by Paolo Foradori in his online published work, ‘Protecting Cultural Heritage During Armed Conflict: The Italian Contribution to ‘Cultural Peacekeeping’’.

Strategies for the protection of cultural heritage in times of conflict and crisis should also entail measures for emergency intervention and first aid to damaged cultural heritage to stop further damage, mitigate new risks, and stabilise the condition until restoration and reconstruction can begin. The ultimate goal of emergency measures should be the recovery of cultural heritage and facilitating the rehabilitation process.

Ironically, in many cases, the post-conflict reconstruction phase imposes more risk and threats to cultural heritage and historic cities through uncontrolled demolition and hastily implemented reconstruction and development projects. In his working paper on Reconstruction and Fragmentation in Beirut, Edward Randall describes how this most famous example of post-war reconstruction in the Middle East resulted in a fabricated city centre losing its connection to its history and local inhabitants. The example illustrates how essential it is that after immediate emergency measures have been taken, long-term recovery strategies are carefully developed in consultation with all stakeholders and local communities, and considering the local socioeconomic context.

Cultural heritage is faced with many global challenges which are making its protection more complex. These include the emergence of non-state actors, links between climate-change disasters and armed conflict, the human rights dimension of cultural heritage, our new understanding of cultural diversity, and the role of heritage in the reconciliation process. In view of such complexity, the protection of cultural heritage requires developing and adopting a multi-pronged strategy which brings together cultural heritage organisations and army, security, law enforcement, humanitarian, and development agencies, as well as media, research, academic, industry, new technology, and governmental and non-governmental sectors. Collaboration between all these players should be considered as a way forward to respond to the current crisis facing the cultural heritage.


This article originally appeared as Heritage at war, mechanisms for protecting cultural heritage during armed conflict in IHBC’s Yearbook 2019, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in 2019. It was written by Bijan Rouhani, senior research associate at the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. He is also the vice-president of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the representative of ICOMOS on the International Board of Blue Shield.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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