Protection of cultural heritage and property

Taking action towards protection of cultural property

Cultural property is targeted for two reasons during armed conflict: casualities resulting from military necessity and the exigencies of war, and purposeful destruction of cultural property as a determined warfare policy utilized by one or both sides to the battle.

The international community should protect cultural heritage against both conventional military forces’ operations during symmetric combat and terrorist groups’ propaganda activities.

Future efforts to avoid the loss of cultural assets of universal importance will inevitably rely on the international community’s political will and vision in prioritizing and insisting on its conservation. The 1954 Convention mandates that in times of armed conflict, each State must act to safeguard its own cultural property. This can be done either by moving important cultural goods and artifacts to safer surroundings or in the case of immovable property like buildings, the onus is on the State to ensure that the cultural heritage is not burdened with a military objective so that it does not become a bright and clear target for the opposition. Occupying force must also take into cognizance that any destruction of property which does not satisfy military necessity is a war crime.[1]

Prevention and Precaution

Like with everything else prevention of damage to cultural property can mainly be achieved through two methods: (1) awareness of the States and (2) education measures. Evaluating the cultural significance of an artefact, structure, or site across which military forces come and in regard of which they are uncertain, as well as determining the geographical extent of archaeological or other historic sites whose perimeters may be ill-defined, is a job for experts, just as it is during hostilities. To this aim, occupying troops should first turn to the appropriate national authorities, i.e., the displaced sovereign’s civilian authority responsible for the protection and administration of the cultural asset in issue.

For effectively dealing with challenges relating to cultural heritage protection, public knowledge is required. In contrast to any form of administrative actions, the coordination of social events by specialists working on cultural heritage can play a catalytic role in avoiding and mending the problem. This is due to the fact that cultural heritage professionals may plan public events with the goal of raising awareness. Additionally, because of their education, training, and talents, they are able to effectively assess circumstances and provide appropriate protective techniques and courses of action. Furthermore, because they either directly engage in international organisations or at least understand how they operate, they can interact with them and supply up-to-date information.

Interstate Cooperation

It is unsaid that States have an international obligation to offer technical or other assistance to another state with a view of protection of cultural property during armed conflict. The Second Protocol of 1999 encourages its signatories to provide assistance in times of need through the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to any state party that requests it.[2] A very prominent example of interstate cooperation is the International Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Zones of Conflict (ALIPH).[3] This alliance was formed between the UAE and France in collaboration with the UNESCO in March of 2017. The aim of the fund is to raise money that is to be used for protecting threatened cultural property, particularly in conflict embroiled regions of Iraq and Syria. In 2018, another 6 countries including Saudi Arabia and Switzerland joined this alliance. Terrorist organizations, including ISIS, have inflicted roughly $150 million in damage to worldwide cultural property and heritage, according to figures published in a session of this organization.[4]

Beyond what individual nation-states can do to protect cultural property, several international organizations work in addition to the existing conventions. The most prominent of these are discussed below:


UNESCO is the world leader in protection of international cultural heritage and property during times of peace and armed conflict. It plays a key role in the implementation of the provisions of the 1954 Convention. The director-general also maintains an International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection and regularly updates it, as well as providing it to the 1954 Hague Convention’s contracting state parties and the secretary-general of the United Nations.[5] To better support its Member States in preparing for and addressing emergency situations, UNESCO created an Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit within its Culture Sector in 2014. The Heritage Emergency Fund was formed in 2015 as a pooled, non-earmarked, and flexible financial tool to enable the Organization to respond promptly and efficiently to disasters.  In November 2015, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted a “Strategy for the reinforcement of the organization’s action for the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural pluralism in the event of Armed Conflict” which included an Action Plan, covering both conflicts and disasters.

    • World Heritage Fund and the World Heritage Committee

The establishment of the World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Fund are among the most prominent contributions made by UNESCO for the protection of cultural property and heritage. The World Heritage Committee is in charge of providing technical, scientific, and financial help to contracting governments for the conservation of cultural property and heritage. The fund, as managed by UNESCO, provides financial assistance to states for cultural property protection during armed conflicts.

    • International Council on Monuments and Sites

ICOMOS is an advisory body of the World Heritage Committee and it works at the global level to apply the provisions of the UNESCO Convention 1972 for the protection of cultural heritage sites. COMOS also collaborates with the IUCN and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property to apply the provisions of the UNESCO Convention 1972 in times of peace and conflict. It also evaluates monuments to be considered as having “outstanding universal value” as per the requirement in the 1972 Convention.[6]

  1. The International Committee of the Red Cross

The ICRC is a humanitarian organization based out of Geneva. Its mandate is to protect victims of international and internal armed conflicts as per the Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols. The ICRC has for many years helped States with the ratification and “domestication” of relevant treaties by publishing different guiding documents, including a model law, a ratification kit and a factsheet. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding[7] in 2016 to increase collaboration on this topic. This is the first time the two groups have collaborated in this way. The ICRC and UNESCO agreed to work together to promote the ratification of relevant international instruments, provide technical assistance, collaborate on awareness-raising and capacity-building, and – where appropriate and in full compliance with each organization’s well-established working modalities – coordinate their actions to protect cultural property that may be at risk in armed conflict.

  1. Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict

This Committee was established 1999 in accordance with the Second Protocol of 1999 to the Hague Convention. Its main goals are to protect cultural property in conflict zones, maintain a list of cultural property under enhanced protection under the Hague Convention, administer the Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and ensure that the Second Protocol’s provisions are fully implemented worldwide, particularly in armed conflict zones.[8] It is made up of 12 states that are also signatories to the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954. The Committee receives and assesses requests for foreign aid in support of emergency or other measures for the preservation of cultural property during hostilities or for its prompt recovery following the end of hostilities, among its many responsibilities.

  1. Non-governmental Organizations

The World Bank defines NGOs, in Operational Directive 14.70 as ”private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development”.[9] In armed conflict, a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are active in some manner in protecting cultural property. The International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) and its component organisations. WATCH (World Association for the Protection of Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage During Times of Armed Conflict) was founded in 2005 to aid in the execution of principles outlined in the Hague Convention of 1954, its protocols, and all other related international accords.


Loopholes in the laws and ways forward

There is a plethora of causes that might drive actors to target cultural property. The examples from recent conflicts in Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan are meant to demonstrate some of the most common and pressing issues that belligerents have when deciding how to conduct war, as well as how the international legal order can now respond. Future efforts to avoid the loss of cultural heritage that is of universal worth will inevitably rely on the international community’s political will and vision to prioritize and insist on its preservation.

  1. Ambiguities in the 1954 Convention

The 1954 Convention, as comprehensive as it attempted to be, still struggles with a lot of glaring loopholes. Firstly, neither the Convention nor its Additional Protocols describe any quantitative measures or procedures to keep track of international cultural heritage especially in a particular armed-conflict region. It depends very heavily upon national institutions for protection of cultural heritage in an emergency situation. What happens when the country becomes incapable of protecting cultural heritage? For example, the Syrian government has become incapable of protecting its cultural heritage sites from ISIS attacks. What happens when the occupying power does not adhere to the general obligations under the Second Protocol? The questions remain unanswered by the Hague Convention. Secondly, the exception provided under the ambit of “military necessity” creates a weak spot for aggressive parties to exploit. There is no set standard as to what constituted military necessity thereby placing cultural properties under danger. The 1999 Protocol attempted to seal this loophole by declaring military necessity as an invalid defense and introducing the “military objective” defense instead. Despite this, the question arises as to how this rule is to be implemented in case of inter-state armed conflict?

  1. Gaps in the 1970 and 1972 UNESCO Conventions

One of the major drawbacks of these conventions are that they do not carry universal jurisdiction. It implies that countries that are not state parties to the convention are not protected under either convention even if a particular property in that country is a part of the international cultural heritage. Furthermore, neither of the conventions prescribe any enforcement mechanism to any violating parties of the convention. It sets out no prosecution system or standards of punishment for those who violate the rules laid down. Furthermore, the 1970 Convention relies on state parties to enact their own national legislations relating to protection of cultural heritage. This creates a massive efficiency break because not every state has a speedy legislative system for adopting or approving legislation, and not all states that are contracting parties to the convention implement laws based on its provisions at the same rate.

  1. Lacuna in Provisions relating to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Although UNESCO developed a distinct convention for intangible cultural heritage conservation, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003, this convention contains no specific provisions addressing the necessity to conserve intangible cultural heritage during armed conflicts.

One of the suggestions would be to precisely define what constitutes cultural property that should be protected by the international community. It has been pointed out that present international law does not provide a uniform and agreed-upon definition of cultural property because governments are mainly free to define what constitutes cultural property. Property, as well as everything it entails, is considered culturally significant. Their sense of national pride Culture is, after all, a subjective concept, therefore any decision of which quality is important to a state’s identity. Misunderstandings will inevitably arise among ethnic groups, and they may result in violence and could even be influenced by political goals. The solution to this is to formulate a comprehensive and limited definition of cultural property in such a way that it is not unreasonably broad but wide enough to protect property that is considered.

Cultural heritage is confronted with several worldwide issues, making its preservation increasingly difficult. Non-state actors’ rise, linkages between climate-change catastrophes and armed conflict, the human rights dimension of cultural heritage, and the importance of heritage in the reconciliation process are among them. Due to this complexity, cultural heritage protection necessitates the development and implementation of a multi-pronged strategy involving cultural heritage organizations, law enforcement, humanitarian, and development agencies, as well as the media, research, educational, industry, modern tech, governmental and non-governmental sectors. Coordination between all of these parties should be recognized as a viable option for dealing with challenges facing preservation of cultural heritage situation.


[1] 1913 Oxford Manual of Naval War, Article 18

[2] UNESCO, Second Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, The Netherlands: UNESCO, March 26, 1999, Articles 232-234

[3] See Media Report UNESCO, France and the Emirates Launch an International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage, UNESCO Media Services (Mar. 20, 2017),

[4] See Alyssa Buffenstein, A Monumental Loss: Here Are the Most Significant Cultural Heritage Sites that ISIS Has Destroyed to Date, ARTNET NEWS (May 30, 2017

[5] Juri Toman, Cultural Property In War: Improvement In Protection: Commentary On The 1999 Second Protocol To The Hague Convention Of 1954 For The Protection Of Cultural Property In The Event Of Armed Conflict 605 (UNESCO Publishing 2009)

[6] UNESCO, Convention Concerning Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (Paris, The France: UNESCO November 17, 1972), Article 1

[7] Memorandum of Understanding between UNESCO and ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross (February 29, 2016)

[8] Andrew Clapham & Paola Gaeta, The Oxford Handbook Of International Law In Armed Conflict 506 (Oxford University Press 2014) [hereinafter Clapham & Gaeta].

[9] World Bank, Operational Directive 14.72

[10] Christiane Johannot-Gradis, Protecting the past for the future: how does law protect tangible and intangible cultural heritage in armed conflict? 900 Int’l Rev. Red Cross 1253, 1256 (2015)



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