Research Director, International Security
Research Fellow, Nuclear Weapons Policy, International Security Department
Sasan AghlaniFormer Consultant, International Security Department, Chatham House

States possessing nuclear weapons should be called upon to consider and publish the risks posed to cultural heritage, and their mitigation strategies, in their nuclear-weapons doctrines and policies.

A woman walks on the roof of the Great Mosque of Djenné after praying. The Great Mosque of Djenné was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, along with the old town of Djenné, in the central region of Mali. Photo: United Nations.A woman walks on the roof of the Great Mosque of Djenné, a World Heritage Site, after praying. Photo: United Nations.

Summary

  • Renewed risk assessments for nuclear weapons and policies are taking place around the world in light of nuclear modernization and the changing geostrategic environment that is making the use of nuclear weapons more likely. As such the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and tests have received increased attention. However, the effect on cultural heritage has so far been neglected.
  • The potential for armed conflict to destroy cultural heritage has been recognized in international law since 1954. There is significant evidence on the impact of nuclear weapons on cultural heritage including the consequences of their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the effect of nuclear-testing programmes in places of cultural significance since 1945. States that possess nuclear weapons have increased liabilities and responsibilities to protect cultural heritage and cultural rights. The need to protect cultural heritage should strengthen the case for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons.
  • Failure to take into account the protection of heritage in the development of nuclear weapons policies – including disarmament, non-proliferation and arms-control negotiations – significantly undermines states’ existing commitments to protecting heritage threatened by conflict.
  • Risk assessments of the impact of nuclear weapons on cultural heritage and important cultural artefacts – and methods of preventing such catastrophic damage – should be part of protecting cultural heritage in every country and the subject of informed public debate. A new body of knowledge on the full range of nuclear weapons impacts would introduce a fresh perspective to inform decision-makers, international organizations and the public in thinking about nuclear weapons policies and practices.
  • Risk and resilience frameworks, which provide sets of solutions for risk assessments, would allow assessments of nuclear weapons threats to heritage and highlight vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Such frameworks would provide a basis for policymakers to identify the world’s cultural heritage most at risk and help develop mitigation strategies to ensure that it is protected. In particular, states possessing nuclear weapons should be called upon to consider and publish the risks posed to cultural heritage, and their mitigation strategies, in their nuclear weapons doctrines and policies, as a contribution to transparency and confidence-building, and as a responsibility to the world’s shared heritage. International organizations, such as the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have a role to play in bridging security perspectives with protecting cultural heritage.