A short introduction to Cultural Property Protection (CPP) in the event of conflict

Photo: Joris Kila (right) in Tripoli Libya September 28th 2011 photo (c) JKila.


Joris Kila:

‘’Lessons learned from the early KFOR deployment stage showed that Cultural Property very often turns out to be the ultimate backing and identity-founding symbol, the last expression of self-assertion of people who lost almost lost everything in an perpetuated acts of violence and ethnic cleansing’’ . Brigadier General Wolfgang Peischel , Austrian Bundesheer.

Many conflicts have cultural dimensions that aim at destroying the opponent's cultural heritage. Cultural property can be a driving force behind human identity, history, progress and in some cases economy (tourism). All good reasons for Cultural Property Protection (CPP) to be of strategic importance for belligerents.

Side effects including, looting, stealing and traffic of cultural objects during or in the aftermath of conflicts (re)emerged in countries like (former) Yugoslav, Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently the same acts against cultural property take place in nations like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Mali and Syria. These developments show the need for safeguarding archeological sites, museums, archives, libraries and monuments. An effective modus for protection in the event of conflict is through military channels utilizing military logistics and tools especially when safety conditions do not allow civil experts to be deployed and civil entities as the police are no longer capable. Of course joint preparations also for civilian stakeholders in peacetime are necessary.

During World War II CPP was a priority. This included damage from building military installations. At present we are confronted with military inaction in the face of looting by civilians and opposing forces. Main reasons are lack of awareness about the obligations and legal instruments and consequently absence of funding. In addition identification of effective strategies for protection is hindered by the fact that, especially in times of crisis, certain cultural objects are looked upon as national or group-related symbols causing extra sensitivity and creating targets for opposing forces today culminating in phenomena such as traumascapes. Then there are safety connotations since apart from inflicting damages, sometimes out of Iconoclastic motives, trading in- and looting of cultural properties in war stricken areas is often practiced by opposing forces. Buying looted cultural property for the Western markets encourages more theft and pillaging and helps to finance the conflict. CPP is in this context an instrument to deny resources to the enemy or in military terms a force multiplier. Military personnel involved in missions in sensitive areas have to be informed that buying cultural goods is forbidden, personnel entering or leaving a mission should be checked by military police. Looting is sometimes even explained as redistribution or as former British defense Minister Geoff Hoon stated in 2003 concerning plunder in Iraq ''liberating those items that are in the charge of the regime by entering its former facilities and redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people'' . His U.S. counterpart Rumsfeld just said "stuff happens" and ''freedom's untidy''.

The plunder of archaeological sites and museums, often driven by economic reasons, does not take place in an organized or systematic manner. Cultural property crime is market driven and based on the international rising demand for antiquities. Since there is only a finite supply of objects that are available for trade any increase can only come from illegitimate sources. Local populations however end up with lack of cultural resources affecting future  tourism and local binding identity.

 ‘’Manches Herrliche der Welt ist in krieg und Streit zerronnen. Wer beschützet und erhält, hat das größte Los Gewonnen ‘’

As was said by Goethe  who in 1826 recognized that cultural property needed to be protected during conflict or would be lost forever. Long before in 1625 the subject was addressed by the Dutch scholar Grotius. In ''On the law of war and peace'' Grotius wrote ''reason compelled the sparing of those things which, if destroyed do not weaken the enemy nor bring gain to the one who destroys them, such as colonnades, statues and the like – that is things of value''. In France the first decrees and rules were made in 1791. Not much later these were followed by protective legislation. This did not prevent Napoleon to take antiquities from Egypt to France after concluding his expedition to Egypt in 1801. The objects collected by the French were confiscated by the British after the final defeat of Napoleon. Among these was the famous Rosetta Stone, now on display at the British Museum.

The protection of Cultural Property was first explicitly mentioned and codified in the Lieber Code of the US Federal Army of 1863. The Declaration of Brussels of 1874 and the Oxford Code of 1880 also mentioned Cultural Property but they were not ratified by a large enough number of countries to be considered an official international treaty. In 1907 the Hague Convention on Land Warfare required parties carrying out sieges and bombardments to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art or science, and historic monuments.

Although dating from ancient times, the destruction of Cultural Property became more devastating when aerial bombing and long-distance weapons were introduced. World War I resulted in the destruction of a large amount of cultural property in Belgium and eastern France but World War II was even more traumatic, due to systematic aerial bombardments and the export of artifacts from occupied territories. Several studies addressed CPP during World War II such as ''the Rape of Europa'' an extensive account by Lynn H. Nicholas from 1994. In various publications authors give a clear image of the offenses against cultural property systematically committed by Nazi institutions like Hitler's and Goering's art collecting squads and activities by the Soviets. Joseph Stalin took reparation into his own hands and ordered his Trophy Brigades to retrieve "price and quality equivalents of the artworks destroyed or removed from Russia during the War."

These events contributed to what finally lead to the first universal convention dealing exclusively with Cultural Property Protection, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague Convention 1954) later strengthened by additional protocols and applying to international and national conflicts.

Not much happened until March 2001  when the subject returned on the international agenda because of the destruction by the Taliban of the famous Bamyan Buddhas  in April 2003 followed by the looting of the Baghdad museum and the continuing devastation of Iraq's archaeological sites. Today we try to meet the challenge of protecting heritage in new types of crises in the post-Cold War world, i.e. ethno-political/religious conflicts and humanitarian emergencies. Contemporary turmoil and conflicts bring (back) cultural heritage related aspects and phenomena like Iconoclasm, political manipulation, theft, new types of distribution and trafficking and cultural landscapes, to mention a few. Unfortunately the number of cases and conflicts in which cultural property is at risk is increasing while a variety of side effects and new complications needs to be managed, studied and analyzed to achieve better safeguarding of the world’s cultural resources. Two main questions need to be answered:

- Why is there no effective practical implementation of The Hague Convention of 1954 and its protocols?

- How can funds be allocated for CPP following international legal obligations?


Under these questions are numerous sub questions, dilemma’s and problems varying from ethical, identity, political to legal and military strategic issues. All aspects require research and analysis from multi-disciplinary academic  perspectives including the realms of sociology, law, art-history, heritage studies, archeology, political science, diplomacy, criminology and military science  to mention a few.

Possibilities for an academic curriculum and research

Appolonia Libya 2012 photo (c) J Kila

Joris Kila is carrying out scientific research on the subject of CPP in the event of conflict for more than 8 years. He did field research during armed conflicts in Macedonia (FYROM), Iraq, Egypt, Mali and Libya. For his research, that included participant observation, and to get access to military sources he enlisted as a reserve officer (rank: Lieutenant-Colonel) in the Dutch armed forces. He received several awards for his research and academic publications and is editor in chief of the series Heritage and Identity from Brill Academic Publishers in Leiden and Boston. Kila lectured extensively on CPP  taking into account different perspectives. His target groups included university students of BA-MA and PhD levels, students from military academies, military legal and civil-military cooperation experts, representatives from international academia, cultural policy experts and decision makers. Lectures and presentations were given all over the world e.g. the Netherlands, Austria, U.S., Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Scandinavia.

Considering that CPP is a multidisciplinary topic potential target groups for lectures and research come from a wide range of disciplines such as law, history, international relations, criminology, art-history, military sciences, archaeology, political sciences, heritage studies and cultural sciences, to mention a few. The topic is very timely as is described above. Consequently there are international requests from people interested in research and supervision for Masters and PhD degrees. Currently there is no chair or specialized supervisor and no special curriculum to accommodate these needs. In addition there is no center of expertise that can also coordinate international cooperation on the subject. Nevertheless there are a number of networks established  that aim at exchange and cooperation.