Cultural Property: A Universal Concern

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Covering a territory barely over 100 acres, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. In addition to being the home of Pope Francis–who visited Washington DC this week–and Holy See of the Catholic Church, Vatican City features some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures within its museums. Drawing approximately five million tourists a year, the Vatican’s cultural heritage and value is recognized both by the public and by international law.

The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the first international treaty solely aimed at protecting cultural heritage during conflict, was drafted following World War II. It protects movable or immovable cultural property, “such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; books and other objects or artistic, historical or archaeological interest.” At the time writing, 130 states have signed the convention, acknowledging that protecting cultural property is important because of its significance to humanity as a whole. Under the convention, the whole area of Vatican City is protected regarding the safeguarding of cultural heritage sites during armed conflicts.

Recent headlines have rekindled the world’s interest in the protection of cultural property. The destruction of ancient city of Palmyra, Syria earlier this year and the more recent clashes within Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, captured the world’s attention.

In May, ISIS militants gained control over Palmyra and began destroying the city soon thereafter. They destroyed two historic tombs, and less than two weeks later the group smashed half a dozen ancient statues with sledge hammers, including a famed 2,000-year-old statue hidden inside an iron box in a Palmyra museum garden. The destruction was publicized with photos and statements on social media. Satellite images last month confirmed the demolition of the Temple of Bel, one of the best preserved Roman-era sites, and the Temple of Baalshamin. Publicly, ISIS regarded the city’s ruins and artifacts as forms of idolatry, but the sale of looted antiquities is also one of the group’s main sources of funding.

The city was once one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world, containing monumental ruins nearly 2,000 years old. Syrian authorities removed and hid hundreds of statues and objects, before ISIS overran the city, but little could be done to protect the ruins. The group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, the chief of the city’s antiquities department for more than 50 years. He had been interrogated for weeks about the location of the hidden antiquities, suggesting that the elderly caretaker may have died protecting them. UNESCO’s Director-General firmly condemned the destruction, calling such acts “war crimes.”

Also in the Middle East, clashes erupted recently at Al Aqsa Mosque in the days leading up to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. Revered as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the plateau where the Mosque sits has been a source of contention for decades. Due to a long-standing agreement, the site is open to non-Muslims, including tourists, but Israel maintains a ban on non-Muslim prayer there.

A recent push by some Israelis for more access and prayer rights prompted Palestinian fears that Israel intended to renege on the agreement and divide the site. On the eve of Rosh Hashana Palestinian youths barricaded themselves in the mosque with stones, fireworks and other devices, in an effort to deter Jewish visitors during the holiday. Israeli police say they entered the mosque to prevent riots, reportedly using tear gas and stun grenades. In the aftermath, conflicting reports of injuries emerged. The clashes garnered worldwide attention, both Vice President Joe Biden and King Abdullah II of Jordan “expressed concern” about the violence, and Mr. Biden urged “all parties to exercise restraint” and “refrain from provocative actions.”

The relevance of the Convention will only increase as conflict zones shift from traditional battlegrounds to urban environments where important monuments and historical buildings might be located. In cases of non-international armed conflicts, as in Syria, creating effective mechanisms to promote non-state actor compliance has become crucial.

One response to “Cultural Property: A Universal Concern

  1. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update – September 28, 2015 | Humanity in War·

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