Deliberate Attacks on Cultural Heritage are a Crime under International Law
Statement by Prof. Dr. Dr. Sabine von Schorlemer, UNESCO Chair in International Relations and Chair of International Law, European Union Law and International Relations
“… the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
With this tweet from 4 January 2020, US President Donald Trump threatened to attack important cultural sites in Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to curtail the President’s statement in an interview with the TV channel ABC on 5 January by explaining that the US would “behave lawfully, […] behave inside the system“.
But that same day, President Trump affirmed his views in front of reporters aboard Air Force One: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way”.
This view does not comply with customary international law (cf. starting with the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land), nor with the international treaties ratified by the US. As a response to this undisguised threat of breaking international law, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay recalled at a meeting with the Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Jalali on 6 January 2020 that both the US as well as Iran are signatories of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, as well as (of) the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Under Article 6 (3) of the World Heritage Convention, signatory parties undertake “not to take any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage (…) situated on the territory of other States Parties to this Convention.” The Director General also referred to the United Nation Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017), which harshly condemns acts of deliberate destruction of cultural heritage.
“This is a threat to commit a war crime”
There is consensus amongst international law experts that the targeted destruction of cultural heritage sites is a war crime. Oona Hathaway, Yale Law School Professor and former legal advisor of the US Department of Defense, called Trump’s menace a “threat to commit a war crime“.
The deliberate destruction of cultural targets is banned by international law, such as by the Hague Convention of 1954. The US are also a contracting party to this convention.
James Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust and cooperation partner of the UNESCO Chair in International Relations, strongly emphasizes the importance of the cultural heritage protection for all humanity:
“The material legacy of the ancient world is our common heritage, the identity and inspiration for all humanity. Cultural heritage has the power to unite us and is critical for achieving peace. Protecting and preserving our cultural heritage is a core value of civilized societies, including our own.”
“It is tragic that today there would be any contemplation or rhetorical threat of further destruction of cultural heritage, particularly when what precious little remains in the world is already suffering from wanton destruction, looting, neglect, reckless overdevelopment, and climate change. Instead, we should be celebrating its existence, working to enhance protections and strengthen our international laws, and moving toward a more textured understanding of the world’s ancient cultures and their contributions to our shared experience.” (continue reading)
Even if President Trump were to distance himself from the threatened course of action in light of international pressure, it is indispensable to stand firmly alongside all those who actively invoke the protection of cultural heritage from deliberate destruction, as well as abidance by international law.
Dr. Sylvia Maus
Scientific Coordinator UNESCO Chair
Tel.: +49 351 463-37396