Imam square in Isfahan

Threats to Destroy Cultural Heritage Sites Underscore Need for Greater Protections

A view of Imam square in Isfahan, Iran, which belongs to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites. (Michael Kappeler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

In the aftermath of the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on January 3, many in Iraq and Syria hailed the military operation by the United States, while many in Iran grieved Soleimani’s death. The tense situation between the governments of Iran and the US made war seem imminent, and threats abounded. One threat by US President Donald Trump was to destroy 52 cultural sites in Iran in response to any retaliation. Targeting cultural sites is a blatant violation of international law and steps need to be taken to ensure they are protected.

Despite the recent threats, the US has long supported the protection of cultural heritage. The US, among other UN Security Council members, eagerly endorsed the first ever resolution on the topic in 2017 that, inter alia, underscored the protection of cultural sites. More importantly, the US was one of the first countries to adopt a military protocol—called the Lieber Code—that prohibits the destruction and theft of cultural property and considers it a war crime. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 that called for protection of cultural sites were inspired by the Lieber Code.

Beyond the position of the US, the rules concerning the protection of cultural property and sites in armed conflicts are well established in both treaty and customary international humanitarian law (IHL). The first treaty was signed at The Hague in May 1954, and has been ratified by over 130 states. Rule 38 of IHL also underscores the necessity of respecting cultural sites. Unfortunately, these rules are often flouted and far from respected.

Yet, the fact remains, that whether in a state of war or peace, targeting cultural sites is never justified. Cultural sites are not merely old structures or monuments that survived destruction or crises throughout history. They constitute a record of human creativity and the core of countless cultural identities around the world that millions of people identify themselves with. Therefore, deliberately erasing or destroying them is a grave crime.

At the core of the question of protecting these sites lies the fact that, whether in relation to Iran or other countries, threatening to destroy them puts humanity’s collective culture at risk. According to UNESCO, Iran has 24 sites inscribed on the World Heritage list and another 56 are on its tentative list. Threats against these sites can jeopardize other cultural sites in areas of warfare and expose them to further threats by terrorist groups, and not only in Iran. ISIS, for example, previously targeted the UNESCO-protected cultural sites in Syria and Iraq. Those attacks may be replicated by similar jihadist or extremist groups.

Recent history is full of incidents where parties to conflicts committed violations against cultural sites, leading to severe damage or total destruction. For example, in April 2003, the Iraqi National Museum was looted by non-state forces, and in April 2015 the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, one of the world’s most unique archaeological sites dating back more than 3,000 years, was destroyed by ISIS. ISIS also destroyed ancient sculptures and antiquities housed in the Mosul Museum, Iraq’s second largest museum.

To take another example, in Mali nine mausoleums within the World Heritage site boundaries of Timbuktu suffered substantial destruction at the hands of jihadists. Fortunately, and for the first time in the history of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was tasked with assisting the authorities in protecting cultural heritage. However, this provision was dropped out during the renewal of MINUSMA’s mandate in June 2019. The mission is now only mandated to “operate mindfully in the vicinity of cultural and historical sites.” Going forward MINUSMA must ensure that protecting cultural sites is an essential part of its mandate.

In civil and domestic armed conflicts, attacks on civilian infrastructures are usually the result of indiscriminate shelling, which by itself is a violation of principles of proportionality and distinction within IHL. Yet targeting cultural sites and acts of vandalism are usually conducted deliberately rather than indiscriminately. The purpose is usually to erase the cultural identity and history of the adverse party, and such deliberate attacks are, by far, worse than indiscriminate shelling, as the aggressor is purposely obliterating that cultural identity.

In addition to the clear criminality of such acts, preserving cultural identity and heritage has implications for fostering peace, stability, and security. In many of the examples cited above, targeting cultural sites was a catalyst attack and further intensified hostilities. Attacking cultural sites incites violence and impedes all attempts to reconciliation. Given that these sites are culturally significant, they could elicit the majority of the population who identify themselves with that cultural identity to avenge similarly, which would exacerbate the circle of violence. Therefore, one avenue to encourage the cessation of hostilities and reduction of violence in armed conflicts is for state and non-state actors to ensure that in their operations they are protecting cultural sites. Refraining from targeting cultural sites and protecting them helps to build confidence between warring parties, exemplifying that despite disagreements and contentions, varying identities are respected as part of a common humanity.

Understanding of the importance of protecting cultural sites can be strengthened by framing it in the same context as civilian and humanitarian sites. As much as targeting hospitals, medical centers, schools, and other civilian infrastructure is a war crime, so too is the destruction of sites of cultural significance. Article 8(2) of the Rome Statute of 1998 establishing the (ICC) considers the destruction of a cultural heritage a war crime, and its perpetuators classified as war criminals who must be brought to justice.

It should be acknowledged that significant effort is already being made to strengthen the protection of cultural property—work which must continue. Moreover, cooperation between various organs such as UNESCO, the Italian Carabinieri force for the protection of cultural heritage and anti-counterfeiting, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), INTERPOL, the UN, museums, and other cultural institutes must be consolidated more holistically. The work in many ways is replicated and scattered, resulting in a lack of coordinated action. The problem is not the lack of treaties, laws, or conventions, but cohesion between the various bodies and organs of concern. What is needed is a comprehensive body that represents all entities concerned so that all initiatives to protect cultural sites can be made more effective.

Nadia Al-Said is Programs Manager at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Sami Salloum is an independent researcher on the Middle East.