When Protectors Become Perpetrators: The Complexity of State Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, which was damaged in an Israeli strike on Gaza City on October 20, 2023. (Photo by Dawood Nemer/AFP via Getty Images)

While Israel wages war against Hamas in Gaza and Russia pursues its war in Ukraine, an egregious yet potentially overlooked assault may be under way in both contexts.

Amid the massive loss of life and displacement in Gaza, as well as the burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe, over 100 ancient cultural or archaeological sites in the Strip were partially damaged or destroyed in the first thirty days of the war, according to a report published by the NGO Heritage for Peace. The number could now be closer to 200 sites damaged or destroyed, though the active conflict hinders complete assessments and verification by specialists. The 13th-century Great Omar Mosque and the 12th-century Church of Saint Porphyrius, where hundreds of Palestinians had been taking shelter, were both among the wreckage. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem accused Israel of intentionally targeting the latter, though Israel has denied intentionally targeting some cultural sites, including the church. Yet the destruction of ancient Palestinian heritage demonstrates the threat the conflict poses not just to Palestinian lives but to Palestinian culture and identity.

In Ukraine, Russia has targeted and damaged or destroyed 351 protected Ukrainian cultural heritage sites since the invasion began, according to UNESCO. Although not all heritage sites can be definitively confirmed as intentional targets, a UN report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asserts that Russia is intentionally targeting certain cultural heritage sites, including attempts to erase local culture, history, and language in occupied territories. Russian forces have also reportedly looted Ukrainian art and artifacts from museums across the country, according to the Ukrainian government and independent United States researchers.

The Targeting of Cultural Heritage by State Actors

The destruction of cultural heritage by states is not a new phenomenon. It is a tactic that has been used throughout history and has occurred in many conflict zones beyond Ukraine and Gaza, including recently in Syria (allegedly by the Syrian regime) and Nagorno-Karabakh (by Azerbaijan). The act encompasses but is not limited to the looting or trafficking of artifacts, the physical destruction of cultural sites or objects, and the systematic erasure of intangible cultural heritage, which includes traditions or living expressions of culture passed down by ancestors. This intentional destruction is not limited to states, as illicit actors, including terrorists and organized criminal groups, have been known to target and destroy cultural heritage. Illicit actors’ involvement in this issue has often been the focus at the multilateral level, such as in the UN Security Council. This article seeks to explore the particular complexities of more recent state involvement and propose potential remedies.

States may intentionally target and destroy cultural heritage both for financial gain (through looting and trafficking) and to systematically erase a community’s collective identity. Such destruction can be utilized to subjugate a society and rewrite its history; ultimately, it is about power. For example, in August 2023, the Kremlin unveiled a set of history textbooks for Russian 11th graders, framing its invasion as a mission to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine. At the same time, Russia exaggerates its own historical role in the creation of a Ukrainian collective identity, overlooking Ukraine’s centuries-long push for self-determination. By manipulating historical narratives, state actors like Russia aim to weaken the resolve and identity of a people. This strategy is sometimes employed as a part of a broader tactic known as “cultural cleansing,” which seeks to obliterate a community’s symbols, history, and landmarks to reshape its identity and form narratives in favor of the aggressor’s agenda.

The destruction of objects or buildings is certainly secondary when compared with other war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the brutal killings of civilians, systematic gender and sexual-based violence (SGBV) as a tactic of war, and the forcible transfer of a population. Yet the destruction of cultural heritage often occurs in conjunction with and is linked to these other egregious human rights abuses. The destruction of the Church of Saint Porphyrius, along with the reported civilian deaths due to the airstrike reportedly targeting the church compound, demonstrates that the protection of cultural heritage is often inextricably linked with the protection of civilians in conflict. Moreover, this destruction can also hinder post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding efforts. Although states are not the only actors who target and destroy cultural heritage, understanding the complexity of their involvement is essential to enhancing transitional justice and the overall promotion and protection of human rights.

International law links the importance of protecting cultural heritage with establishing lasting peace, as highlighted by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which is the first and most comprehensive treaty on the protection of cultural heritage. Further, under the Rome Statute, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime and could in some cases qualify as a crime of aggression or a crime against humanity when it targets a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group with discriminatory intent. Although scholars and states debate whether this is a genocidal act, it is at a minimum both a by-product of and one of the conditions for genocide.

The Complexity of State Destruction of Cultural Heritage

State actors’ involvement in the destruction of cultural heritage creates particular challenges, since states ultimately have the responsibility for its protection, as established in international law and reaffirmed in 2017 by UN Security Council Resolution 2347 (a resolution, ironically, that the Russian Federation voted in favor of). Such tension is not novel. Despite the fact that states have a similar responsibility to protect civilians, many have been documented to commit systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity in cases around the world, such as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar, and Syria.

The intertwined nature of identity further complicates a state’s destruction of cultural heritage, especially in the cases of Russia and Israel. The city of Kyiv, significant for both Russia and Ukraine, serves as a symbol of the two states’ interconnected past, which stretches from the ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus through the Soviet Era. Some of the most famous Russian writers and poets, such as Anton Chekhov, Nikolay Gogol, and Mikhail Bulgakov, were Ukrainian. Thus, when Russia targets Ukrainian cultural heritage, it inadvertently damages its own cultural legacy. Similarly, the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Gaza, particularly through the bombings of museums, has led to the loss of historical artifacts, some of which date back to the Roman governance over the region then known as Judea and Samaria. When museums and historical artifacts are destroyed in Gaza, Israel risks not only harming Palestinian cultural heritage but also altering or subverting parts of its own history and identity. These acts of destruction committed by Russia and Israel are not only an assault on the “other” but also a self-inflicted wound, one that can be manipulated to serve contemporary political or ideological objectives.

Despite this complexity, there is space for various stakeholders, including states and civil society, to enhance the protection of cultural heritage and apply accountability mechanisms when violations occur.

Enhancing the Protection of Cultural Heritage

Education and awareness-raising have been used to enhance the protection of cultural heritage and can be supported by the international community. For example, the Ukrainian government has launched an initiative called “Postcards from Ukraine,” which aims to educate those outside Ukraine about important cultural heritage pieces that have been damaged, destroyed, or looted. As Russia’s war against Ukraine is largely based on Ukrainian identity—or, to Russia, the lack thereof—countering these narratives is essential. Civil society groups and heritage specialists have also sought to raise awareness about the devastation of Gaza’s cultural heritage. The Dalloul Art Foundation in Beirut launched an exhibit showcasing traditional Palestinian cultural practices alongside a commentary on how these traditions are practiced today under threat of war. Specialists, NGOs, and multilateral institutions have also undertaken efforts to document the destruction of cultural heritage. UNESCO is verifying and documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Ukraine and conducting preliminary damage assessments in Gaza. A German organization is photographing 250 historic and cultural buildings in Ukraine to aid reconstruction efforts in case they are destroyed, and a network of librarians and archivists has attempted to document the damage, destruction, and looting of archives, libraries, and museums in Gaza. Such initiatives are essential for increasing awareness and laying the groundwork for future accountability.

Protecting physical items and monuments is also a vital way to protect cultural heritage. There have been collaborative efforts involving cultural institutions like the Smithsonian Institution in relocating valuable cultural artifacts to secure sites. The company Uber, through the facilitation of the Smithsonian, partnered with the Ukrainian government to assist in relocating cultural artifacts across war zones in the region for free. UNESCO has also provided training for these authorities to prevent illicit trafficking and looting and engaged in awareness-raising campaigns so that the wider public, particularly art buyers, are aware that these looted artifacts may end up in art markets across Europe. Prior to October 7, the Cultural Protection Fund (CPF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and other international partners had undertaken the renovation of Gaza’s Saint Hilarion Monastery, one of the oldest and largest monasteries in the Middle East. In January 2024, UNESCO provisionally inscribed the same monastery onto the International List of Cultural Property under Enhanced Protection, the highest level of immunity UNESCO can grant, underscoring the importance of multi-sector partnerships in protection efforts.

Preventative measures such as diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means could also be pursued. South Africa’s application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for provisional measures to protect Palestinian rights in Gaza, along with its filing for additional measures in early March, provides an apt example. Among the long list of human rights violations in the broader genocide case, South Africa has accused Israel of purposefully targeting Palestinian cultural heritage sites in Gaza. The provisional measures South Africa has called for would aid in the protection of not only physical structures and cultural identity but also the civilians often taking shelter there, such as in the Church of Saint Porphyrius.

Enhancing Accountability

In addition to the efforts outlined above, pursuing accountability through international mechanisms could be warranted. In the case of Russia, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has already issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for war crimes, and its investigation into other potential war crimes is still under way. The Permanent Missions of Liechtenstein and Latvia to the United Nations have also recently brought forth a proposal to establish a special criminal tribunal to potentially prosecute Russia for crimes of aggression, which the destruction of cultural heritage could potentially fit under. South Africa has listed the intentional destruction of Palestinian cultural and religious sites in both its genocide case against Israel before the ICJ and its referral of Israel to the ICC, arguing that the targeting illustrates a broader assault on Palestinian life. Such efforts are important steps in pursuing accountability for crimes committed in conflicts and upholding international law.

However, prosecuting a state or individual associated with a state for the destruction of cultural heritage presents a myriad of challenges. The ICC has successfully convicted a member of the terrorist group Ansar Dine for the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Mali, and the judgment against another Ansar Dine member is forthcoming. Yet this charge has not been successfully levied against an individual associated with a state before. Moreover, geopolitical realities and alliances may complicate such prosecutorial efforts at the international level. Although protection and accountability pathways are neither easy nor simple, the stakes could not be higher.


Even if Russia’s invasion does not result in annexed Ukrainian territory, safeguarding cultural heritage is a vital aspect of preserving Ukrainian identity, which is a primary target of Russia’s aggression. Similarly, as Israel continues its bombardment of Gaza, enhancing the protection of Palestinian cultural heritage and accountability for violations that have occurred is paramount to protecting both Palestinian lives and Palestinian identity. Failing to do so risks the erasure of Palestinian culture and public life and the denigration of international law. Moreover, in targeting cultural heritage in Ukraine and Gaza, Russia and Israel do damage to their own historical legacies. The safeguarding of cultural heritage about more than mere objects; it is crucial to preserving the individual and universal value of any group’s culture, history, and identity, as well as human rights and international law.

Michaela Millender is Program Officer at The Soufan Center. Nicolette Lyubarsky is interning at the Soufan Center.