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Culture Shock: The war over heritage

The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, prior to being destroyed by ISIS forces in 2015 The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, prior to being destroyed by ISIS forces in 2015 MarekPL
10 Jun
The conflict in Syria has focused attention on the ‘war crime’ of inflicting damage to significant cultural property

By any measure, the events of the past six years in Syria have been devastating. Nearly half a million people killed, more than ten million either internally displaced or seeking refuge abroad. Further to these tragedies has been the deliberate high profile destruction of the country’s ancient cultural heritage, such as Palmyra’s Temple of Bel. All six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites are now at least ‘in danger’, some almost entirely demolished.

In response, the UN Security Council recently unanimously adopted Resolution 2347, which ‘deplores and condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage... in the context of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups’ – the first such resolution to focus on cultural heritage.

Addressing the Council, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, said: 

‘The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, it has become a tactic of war to tear down societies over the long-term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing. Weapons are not enough to defeat violent extremism. Building peace requires culture also; it requires education, prevention, and the transmission of heritage.’

For Peter Stone, Professor of Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace, the cultural destruction in Palmyra focused attention on an issue which has ‘been around as a war crime at least since the mid-1940s.’

He highlights the inclusion of cultural property damages in the post-World War II Nuremberg trials, as well as the 1954 signing of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Therefore, the adoption of Resolution 2347 will have little impact on what has already been an international crime for decades, albeit one only recently finding teeth at the International Criminal Court.

‘Where there is enough evidence, and where there is a will from the international community,’ says Stone, ‘then the war crime of wilful destruction of cultural property will be prosecuted, and will be won.’

This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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