Protecting Cultural Heritage

Protecting Cultural Heritage

UNESCO, UN member states and the entire international community have begun to explore ways to halt the destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflict. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has partnered with the governments of France and Italy, the International Criminal Court and other entities to host events and support campaigns aimed at raising awareness regarding the connection between the destruction of cultural heritage and acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Linkages between Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocity Crimes

Raphael Lemkin created the term “genocide” and ensured it was outlawed under 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As a Jewish refugee from Poland, Lemkin also had direct experience of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. For Lemkin the killing of a people “in a spiritual and cultural sense” was linked to their destruction in a physical sense. Lemkin’s original conception of genocide included the “desecration and destruction of cultural symbols, destruction of cultural leadership, destruction of cultural centers, prohibition of cultural activities.”

In our own times, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage has been part of systematic campaigns by some state and non-state actors to destroy a group and its history. Culture is an intrinsic part of what constitutes group identity and an attack on cultural heritage can consequently be an attack on a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’s right to exist. The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was also adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two, which not only resulted in devastating human losses but also in widespread cultural destruction. Currently 133 states out of 193 UN member states are signatories to the 1954 Convention. All UN member states should ratify the 1954 Convention and its two Protocols.

The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is also defined in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a war crime. During 2016 the ICC tried and convicted Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi of war crimes for the intentional destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu, Mali during 2012. In the first case of its kind to be held at the ICC, al-Mahdi was sentenced for partially destroying Sufi Shrines in Timbuktu that had been previously designated as UNESCO world heritage sites. The presiding Judge, Raul Cano Pangalangan, asserted in his ruling that the damaged parts of the site were “the heart of Mali’s cultural heritage [and] were of great importance to people of Timbuktu.”

Noting this landmark ICC case, on 24 March 2017 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2347, deploring the systematic destruction of cultural heritage sites, the smuggling of cultural property, and related offenses. This was the first Security Council resolution to directly address the issue of the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflict.

Protecting Cultural Heritage from Mass Atrocities

The link between destruction of cultural heritage and commission of mass atrocity crimes needs to be more widely recognized and should be included in considerations around preventing and responding to genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. To this end, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect encourages all UN member states and other relevant actors to consider the following points:

  • Deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is often intimately connected to a deliberate strategy to perpetrate mass atrocity crimes.
  • Mass atrocity crimes are usually committed against an identified population, which can be singled out by specific shared characteristics, including ethnicity, religious belief, or linguistic community. As culture constitutes an intrinsic part of an identity of a people – an attack on cultural heritage could consequently be an attack on the very identity of a group and its right to exist.
  • The systematic destruction of cultural heritage often aims at demolishing a targeted group’s history and symbols, undermining their cultural continuity, and may have the intention of erasing any historical trace that these communities existed.
  • In addition to helping to uphold the Responsibility to Protect populations from mass atrocities, a comprehensive approach for the protection of cultural heritage also has important implications for peacebuilding and post-conflict reconciliation.

The preservation of cultural heritage can assist in rebuilding a society in the aftermath of conflict, and in some cases it can be essential to economic revival, security and stability. As the former head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has argued: “there is no need to choose between saving lives and preserving cultural heritage: the two are inseparable.”

Global Centre Events on Cultural Heritage Protection

In September 2017, on the margins of the opening of the 72nd Session UN General Assembly, the government of Italy, the European Union, UNESCO, UNODC and the Global Centre co-hosted an event on the protection of cultural heritage from mass atrocities and terrorism during armed conflict. Speakers at the event included the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, Mr. Angelino Alfano; the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Ms. Federica Mogherini; the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms. Irina Bokova; the Executive Director of UNODC, Mr. Yuri Fedotov; the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Ms. Fatou Bensouda and the UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Mr. Ivan Šimonović. The event was moderated by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre.

The event was broadcast live on UN webcast.

In September 2018, during the opening of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly the Global Centre participated at a high-level side-event “Protecting Cultural Heritage: Staying Committed to the Implementation of UN Legal Instruments,” where Executive Director Dr. Simon Adams delivered a statement to the newly established Group of Friends for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. Dr. Adams called on members of the Group of Friends and other countries to recognize this important link and ensure that issues of preventing and responding to mass atrocities are included in considerations around matters pertaining to the protection of cultural heritage.


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Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA

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