Sasan Aghlani
Sasan Aghlani
Former Consultant, International Security
A proposed new bill coincides with acute public awareness of the vulnerability of ‘immovable’ heritage in armed conflict.
A replica of the Triumphal Arch at Palmyra is unveiled at Trafalgar Square on 19 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.A replica of the Triumphal Arch at Palmyra is unveiled at Trafalgar Square on 19 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

In the aftermath of the well-publicized devastation of heritage sites in Syria – most notably Palmyra – and growing evidence that extremist groups like ISIS derive some revenue from looting, the notion of a responsibility to protect cultural property in conflict is becoming accepted beyond heritage conservation. In this year’s Queen’s Speech, the UK government has now outlined a bill to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention and its two Protocols, the chief legal mechanism for protecting cultural property in conflict zones. If passed, this would present a unique opportunity for the UK to become an effective global leader in this area.

The UK has already been setting up a cultural property protection capacity in the British Army, and the new bill specifies additional criminal offences related to the dealing of cultural property ‘[illegally] exported from occupied territory and a provision for such property to be seized and returned to occupied territory after the close of hostilities’. But the effectiveness and credibility of the UK as a leader in this area will hinge on its ability to conceptualize heritage destruction more broadly than ISIS iconoclasm, balance capacity-building between the state and civil society and take action against some of its own allies guilty of destroying heritage.

In the first instance, the problem of heritage destruction in the form of looting reflects much more complex challenges associated with organized crime and illicit trade – particularly in failed states or conflict zones – and cannot be reduced solely to terrorist fundraising. It is also potentially a problem with roots closer to home. Concerns about ‘looting to order’, for instance, highlight the importance of understanding supply chains involving organized criminal gangs – likely linked to other areas of illicit trade, and in some cases also terrorism – enlisted to loot specific items for dealers and collectors in Western countries. The bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech will demand that the UK auction houses pay greater attention to due diligence in accounting for provenance of artefacts suspected of originating from states such as Iraq and Syria, but might not be particularly effective at tackling the illicit trade of artefacts originating from outside conflict zones. Likewise, there is divergence of opinion over whether the Hague Convention can be applied to non-state actors.

In a similar vein, the notion that British ‘monuments men’ be enlisted as a reactive force after a conflict has erupted – or even ended – will clearly not be as effective as the capacity to help countries at risk to take necessary steps to mitigate against the looting and destruction of heritage before conflicts erupt. This means helping both states and societies become more resilient to episodes of destruction, and being willing to work at the civil society level in instances where governments, militaries or police forces are complicit in or directly responsible the destruction or looting of cultural property. In both regards, organizations such as Blue Shield should continue to play an important role in guiding UK contributions to where they will be most effective and least damaging to the objectives contained in the Hague Convention.

Finally, while the UK has readily condemned the destruction of heritage at the hands of jihadi insurgents, it has not been as forceful about the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Yemen by Saudi Arabian warplanes. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for the UK therefore would be in establishing itself as a credible leader in cultural property protection if it remains reluctant to challenge the actions of some of its allies. Credibility could also depend on its willingness to align its own definition of cultural property with those shared in societies experiencing conflict.

The Hague Convention’s definition of cultural property as ‘of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people’ leaves it to the UK to determine the value of heritage, and can provide an opportunity for it to apply a broader definition of what it intends to protect to include more contemporary forms of cultural property still central to the everyday lives of ordinary people – such as schools, religious buildings or libraries. If it can avoid the potential pitfalls, Britain can now be a leader in moving beyond heritage conservation and highlighting the importance of cultural property protection to societies in and recovering from conflict.

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