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We must do more to protect cultural property in wartime

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 29 July 2004

Last year’s invasion of Iraq provoked much discussion over international law issues. But one matter that did not get much attention was the role of international law in the protection of cultural property. The Americans and British are not bound by the basic treaty on this issue and Australia gives it only partial support.

Cultural property is often targeted for two reasons. First, it is a way of "attacking" the enemy population by destroying their institutional memory. In the Balkans Wars in the 1990s, for example, the ethnic groups deliberately targeted the buildings, monuments and bridges of the other side to "cleanse" their presence from the area. On 9 November 1993, a Croatian army tank deliberately shelled the Stari Most ("The Old Bridge"), the symbol of Mostar’s multicultural past. The bridge was built in 1566 by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and was one of the most famous in eastern Europe.

Second, there is pillaging for profit. As last year’s looting of the Baghdad museum showed, there is money to be made from stolen goods. The international police agency INTERPOL says in general terms that there is a recovery rate of only about 12 per cent for stolen artworks. There is a flourishing international black market for stolen artworks.


Until 1990 Iraq had a good record for the care of its cultural heritage. Its legislation dated back to 1936, and it had control over looting. Talented professionals ran the museums. Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait changed all that. The UN sanctions prevented the supply of chemicals needed to maintain preservation of objects. Then in last year’s Coalition attack on Iraq, not enough attention was given to the protection of the museum and so there was extensive looting.

In 1954 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convened a conference on the protection of cultural property. Australia was represented at the conference.

It was a productive conference with three documents being adopted. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict sets out the general provisions regarding protection, the personnel involved in the work, and the creation of an international distinctive emblem. There is also a set of regulations on how the treaty is to be implemented.
The Conference also created a protocol (which is a treaty that adds to the main treaty) on the prevention of the exportation of cultural property and to provide for the return of illegally exported objects. This had been a very controversial issue at the Conference and so the delegates decided to separate out the issue into a separate treaty so that the main treaty could be adopted with far less controversy.

The 1954 documents were done with the memory of the war still fresh in the minds of all the delegates. But that sense of urgency quickly disappeared. There has been a low level of priority given to implementing the treaties.

The US and UK have not implemented these treaties (though they claim that their troops receive training in the essentials of them so that they do not violate them). Certainly the bombing in last year’s Iraq Conflict was done with the minimal damage to Iraqi cultural heritage.

Australia adopted the basic 1954 treaty in 1984 - 30 years after it was signed. It still has not accepted the first protocol. This is evidently not a high priority for Australia.


The second protocol has done even worse. It was drawn up in 1999 to improve the working of the 1954 treaty. Among its provisions is the banning of archaeological excavations in occupied territory. Only 15 countries have adopted it and it needs 20 to enter into force. The US and UK, not being parties to the 1954 treaty, cannot become a party to this protocol.

Australia could ratify it if it wanted to but it has shown no sign of doing so - and there is little domestic political pressure to do so. This year - the 50th anniversary of the Hague Convention - would be an appropriate time to announce that Australia will now do so. It could also encourage its allies to do the same.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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