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Modern conflict, emergencies and cultural heritage:exploring the relevance of cultural rights (2020)



Matters of cultural identity, heritage and practices are often at the heart of modern conflict and emergency patterns. If we recognize this, it triggers questions such as i) how threats to cultural heritage and cultural property may intensify or shift under armed conflict, ii) how to safeguard cultural property in the short-term maximizing what can be done under complex emergency contexts, but also iii) how to connect the dots between cultural property and heritage protection and the centrality of identity politics and heritage from the perspective of social cohesion, peace building and cultural rights. It is mainly the latter topic, I wish to address here.
International Conference on the 20th anniversary
of the1999 Second Protocol of the 1954Hague Convention
Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft
Confédération suisse
Confederazione Svizzera
Confederaziun svizra
Swiss Confederation
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
Convention for the Protection of
Cultural Property in the Event
of Armed Conict
Published in 2020 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 7, place de Fontenoy,
75352 Paris 07 SP, France and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) - United Nations and International
Organisations Division, Bundesgasse 28, 3003 Berne, Switzerland
© UNESCO / Federal Department of Foreign Affairs - United Nations and International Organisations Division, 2020
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or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of
UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.
This Publication was developed under the supervision of Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of the Entity “Culture
and Emergencies” at UNESCO. The editiorial team was comprised of Tural Mustafayev, Shinuna Karume Robert,
Maryam Kadia Sow, Nadia Carde, Ala’a Otain and Zakariae Chraibi.
Cover photo: © MINUSMA/Marco Dormino
All other photos of the Publication: © UNESCO/ Les Studios Casagrande Sarl
Cover and graphic design: UNESCO
Translation and editing: RixTrans Ltd
Typeset: UNESCO
Dr Peter Bille Larsen is a Danish anthropologist who works on
conservation and social justice at both local and global levels.
After initial experiences in Oxford, Geneva and Lucerne, he is
currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Geneva. He has
worked extensively with UNESCO, the Advisory Bodies to the
World Heritage Convention and academic partners to strengthen
analysis and policy discussions on human rights and heritage.
Recent books include Post-frontier resource governance
(Palgrave, 2015), The Anthropology of Conservation NGOs
(Palgrave 2018), World Heritage and Human Rights (Routledge,
2018) and World Heritage and Sustainable Development (Routledge, 2018).
Modern conflict, emergencies and cultural heritage:
exploring the relevance of cultural rights
Senior Lecturer, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Matters of cultural identity, heritage and practices are often at the heart of modern conflict
and emergency patterns. If we recognize this, it triggers questions such as i) how threats to
cultural heritage and cultural property may intensify or shift under armed conflict, ii) how to
safeguard cultural property in the short-term maximizing what can be done under complex
emergency contexts, but also iii) how to connect the dots between cultural property and
heritage protection and the centrality of identity politics and heritage from the perspective
of social cohesion, peace building and cultural rights. It is mainly the latter topic, I wish to
address here.
Speaking here in my personal capacity as a researcher, I am also involved in a joint initiative
by UNESCO and the OHCHR which seeks to better understand the challenges experienced
by humanitarian, security and peacebuilding actors in dealing with culture and cultural rights
ultimately leading to a joint capacity building tool.
Yesterday, indeed, we held powerful statements about the challenges of upholding International
Humanitarian Law in times of conflict by the Red Cross. Yet, also we had a powerful statement
by the Special Rapporteur on Karima Bennoune about a human rights approach to heritage.
Attacks against property are also attacks against people and their rights. She stressed the
importance of increasing ratifications of the 1954 Convention, as a way of ensuring this. A
pragmatic approach of getting more actors to play by rules with a proposal to adopt a proposal
in the short-term for more ratifications.
Yet, it is also a moment to ask questions like: Are we on track with the Convention and its
instruments as an effective instrument for the challenges faced today? Could additional and
complementary approaches potentially be relevant?
Yesterday, again, there were, on the one hand, strong arguments against a third Protocol.
Also, there is perhaps some skepticism about aiming for more and higher requirements, if
the international community is already struggling to uphold IHL. Let’s try to save what can
realistically be saved. Would further rules run the risk of Parties abandoning customary law,
Yet, look again. In some respects, aren’t the challenges faced today with destruction of cultural
property, extremist action and identity politics are different from the challenges leading to the
adoption of the 1954 Convention? Whether we look to the recent tragedies in Sri Lanka, Iraq, at
stake are not simply attacks on property, but deeper-running tensions, the instrumentalization
of identity, extremist politicking and the denial of individual and collective rights. If property is
at the heart of it, much more is clearly at stake.
For starters, if we consider the destruction of cultural property as the tip of the iceberg of a
wider problem complex, what can be said about underlying cultural, political dynamics and
how does a cultural rights approach fit with wider approaches to safeguard cultural heritage?
Acknowledging that cultural heritage often ends up being dragged into longstanding complex
conflicts, to what extent is conflict analysis equipped, on the one hand, to decrypt such
dynamics and on the other hand, design culturally-sensitive responses? Given that culture
is a very critical consideration in conflict today, as recognized in the very concept of identity
politics, then culture must be at the heart of conflict analyses and peace strategies. Yet, what
does this mean in practice?
Drawing on both literature interviews with practitioners in the field, this presentation explores
implications for emergency response, in particular, addressing the relevance of a cultural
rights-based framework.
In the summer of 2015, Professor Khaled al-Asaad, the head of archaeology at Palmyra, Syria
for more than four decades, was brutally beheaded17 by Daesh, as he reportedly refused to
tell the location of hidden artefacts18. The brutality reminds us that heritage is not simply a
profession, a matter of cultural policy, signs of distant past, but symbols, practices, and means
of communication and targets of the present. Think also of communities and people losing
lives and presence because who they, how they relate to past or ways they are connected
distinct places. While it on the on the hand, may seem as meaningless symbol politics, it from
another perspective alerts us to the centrality of matters of identity in justifying and waging
war, but also more profoundly what it takes to maintain peace thus potentially avoiding or
rather preventing the necessity of humanitarian action in the first place.
As a starting point, the protection of cultural property is at the heart of the 2015 Strategy for
reinforcing UNESCO’s action for the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural pluralism
in the event of armed conflict. The strategy also adopts a broader two-pronged approach.
On the one hand, it is about strengthening Member States’ ability to prevent, mitigate, and
17 The martyr of Palmyra: Khaled Al Asaad
18 Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities, The Guardian, 18 Aug. 2015
recover the loss of cultural heritage and diversity as a result of conflict. On the other hand, it
concerns incorporating the protection of culture into humanitarian action, security strategies
and peacebuilding processes19. As the strategy clearly underlines:
“attacks on culture are characterized by the deliberate targeting of individuals and
groups on the basis of their cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation. Combined with
the intentional and systematic destruction of cultural heritage, the denial of cultural
identity, including books and manuscripts, traditional practices, as well as places
of worship, of memory and learning, such attacks have been defined as “cultural
cleansing” (UNESCO 2015).
As the strategy continues:
“Similar acts, such as those recently perpetrated by ISIL/Daesh in Iraq and Syria and
associated groups in other countries, are undertaken to impose a sectarian vision of
the world and of societies, erase cultural diversity and pluralism and deny cultural
rights and fundamental freedoms.”
At stake, in other words, is a clear attempt to connect the dots not just situating the destruction
of cultural property as a rights issue, but also evoking the underlying clash of world views,
attacks on cultural diversity and the denial of rights. How in essence can such rights violations
be responded to and addressed in a way facilitating the implementation of the strategy?
What we suggest here is exploring how the growing attention and focus on cultural property
as a window of opportunity to promote a more comprehensive approach to culture, cultural
pluralism and a rights-based approach to culture and heritage.
2019 is not only the 65th anniversary of the 1954 convention, the 20th anniversary of its
Second Protocol, it is also the 25th anniversary of the Genocide in Rwanda20 and we are just
out of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why mention this?
Without likening the destruction of cultural property to genocide, nor other gross human rights
violations faced in times of conflict, destruction has increasingly been framed as a crime
against humanity. Also, it is fruitful to take a step back and think about what heritage is more
broadly, and how it is used and how it might relate to destruction, loss of human dignity faced
and the international human rights architecture put in place during the 20th century.
Cultural rights have long been described as neglected21, the prodigal son of human rights22
and even an orphan in the wider human rights family. Today we are experiencing an awakening
that culture, heritage and cultural rights do matter and are intimately connected. The last 20
years have seen growing recognition that cultural rights are not a cause of division, but rather
a necessary ingredient of building social cohesion. Cultural rights, it must be added, are
not just about cultural heritage protection, but concerns the right and ability to enjoy cultural
19 ROSÉN, F. 2018. NATO and cultural property: Embracing New Challenges in the Era of Identity Wars. NATO Science for
Peace and Security Project “Best Practices for Cultural Property Protection in NATO-led Military Operations”. Copenhagen:
Nordic Center for Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict (CHAC).
20 MACKINTOSH, A. 1996. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience edited
by David Millwood*. Journal of Refugee Studies, 9, 334-342.
21 SYMONIDES, J. 1998. Cultural rights: a neglected category of human rights. International Social Science Journal, 50, 559-
22 MARAÑA, M. 2015. Heritage and human rights: A participation and gender-based analysis of the work carried out by the
United Nations in the field of cultural heritage. Getxo: UNESCO.
rights in more general terms, including free artistic expression, transmitting one’s language
and participating in the cultural life of one’s choice.
If the destruction of globally recognized cultural property is dramatic, it must also be seen in
the context of an equally dramatic loss of everyday buildings, hospitals, schools, sacred sites
and lives.
Indeed, from one perspective, heritage conservation of singular properties, may not appear
essential for the scramble of saving lives, and the need for shelter, food and medical support in
the immediate emergency, yet clearly matter in the long-term and reveal deeper significance.
However, such divides are easily too simplistic and black-and-white about the nature of
conflicts, emergency and the value of a culturally-informed approach.
Yet, in another sense, the protection of cultural property and heritage more broadly is arguably
more than merely a question of isolated cases of saving material evidence of the past, but
also concerns the underlying tensions, the instrumentalization of identity and the individual
and collective rights denied. From the destruction of the Stari Most Bridge during the Bosnian
War targeted as a symbol of the ‘ethnically mixed’ Mostar to be ‘cleansed’23 to Islamic State
attacks against “sites associated with the commemoration of the dead” and buildings as
signs of pre-Islamic cultures”, the rights issues are profound concerning collective rights to
memory, identity and survival grounded in long-standing historical and political conditions.
Consider also how the rise of populism and polarized politics results in highly inflammatory
grounds for sustaining conflict, antagonistic identity politics leaving heritage vulnerable to
capture and instrumentalization and provoking human tragedies as we have seen in the case
of the Rohinga24. Heritage and cultural identity in such cases become targets or means to
attack rather than spaces for social cohesion.
On the one hand, the safeguarding of cultural property is critical in the immediate term, on
the other, more thinking and long-term approaches are needed to think about heritage and
cultural rights as tools for recognition and reconciliation25. A cultural rights-based approach
arguably offers an important complementary approach allowing a stronger focus on heritage
communities and stewards, their conditions and rights. It concerns everyday manifestations
of connection to place, naming topographies, determining access and fundamentally how
people live together – or apart. In this sense, it also offers a different bottom-up perspective
on how cultural property and heritage matter, which may include but also go beyond globally
recognized categories of cultural property and heritage.
It may thus allow us to think about cultural property threats and protection as the tip of
the iceberg of structural dynamics of a social, cultural and political nature. Indeed, unless
such underlying social tensions and identity politics are addressed head-on, the immediate
safeguarding of cultural property in the short-term may easily be jeopardized in the long-term
given the protracted nature of the conflict.
23 BROSCHÉ, J., LEGNÉR, M., KREUTZ, J. & IJLA, A. 2017. Heritage under attack: motives for targeting cultural property
during armed conflict. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23, 248-260.
24 HAUSER-SCHÄUBLIN, B. (ed.) 2011. World Heritage Angkor and Beyond: Circumstances and Implications of UNESCO
Listings in Cambodia, Göttingen.
25 KALMAN, H. 2017. Destruction, mitigation, and reconciliation of cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies,
23, 538-555.
To put things simply: Without cultural heritage no cultural property, without a minimum of
cultural rights no cultural heritage. Such a complementary perspective is arguably a foundation
allowing for people to access, to practice and fundamentally live with cultural diversity and
property in the first place. Interviews with practitioners on the ground from the humanitarian,
peace-keeping and cultural heritage fields interestingly reveal the pragmatic importance of
bringing together cultural property, heritage, and rights in a comprehensive approach from
early on.
There is today growing advocacy and recognition of the rights implications of attacks against
cultural heritage, which have been widely recognized such as through resolutions 2199 (2015)
and 2347 (2017) by the UN Security Council, as well as Resolutions 33/20 (2016) and 37/17
(2018) by the Human Rights Council.
Yet, addressing the destruction of cultural property as a human rights violation is arguably
only the tip of the iceberg in terms of recognizing the links between heritage and rights.
What we suggest is a more comprehensive approach to culture, heritage and cultural rights,
notably recognizing the additional dimensions and benefits deriving from this. More can be
done to recognize the centrality of culture, heritage and identity matters in contemporary
conflicts – and peacebuilding situations and humanitarian practice.
Moving forward on this would arguably thinking about a cultural rights approach with several
First, let us reiterate the importance of cultural rights framework is about more than cultural
heritage protection and underlines the ability and conditions that enable individuals and
communities to enjoy and practice cultural rights in general terms including free artistic
expression, religion, language and participating in the cultural life of one’s choice.
Second, let us not forget the protagonism of heritage practitioners and stewards in mobilizing
local protection efforts in the first place. Discrete movements of objects and cooperation
with local communities have proven successful from Mali to Syria26. Even high-profile rescue
operations of the globally significant at the end of the day rely on hands-on support with local
stewards in the long-term.
Third, cultural rights concern how issues are framed in the first place. This concerns what is
deemed worthy of protection, what is saved and whether protection efforts take into account
the conditions enabling people to freely and effectively practice and transmit cultural heritage
to future generations. The challenge is of course that culture is easily manipulated, identity and
heritage easily fall prey to instrumentalization by political interests, warring parties or material
gain for that matter. In other words, addressing cultural property destruction is also about
countering the destruction, about the iconoclasm taking place27, and ultimately protecting the
cultural rights of vulnerable groups.
26 BURNS, R. 2019. Weaponizing monuments. International Review of the Red Cross, 1-21.
27 ISAKHAN, B. & GONZÁLEZ ZARANDONA, J. A. 2018. Layers of religious and political iconoclasm under the Islamic State:
symbolic sectarianism and pre-monotheistic iconoclasm. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24, 1-16.
Fourth, cultural property and heritage protection is at times perceived as driven by economic
and political elites, notably in social contexts characterized by poverty, exclusion and the rise
of extremism. In response, is cultural property protection simply a rescue mission for what
matters historically for the world, or can approaches be harnessed to make the connection
to lives, communities, vulnerabilities and identity politics involved? As identity politics are at
the heart of conflict, a cultural rights perspective may offer a complementary framework and
alternative language for linking immediate rescue action to broader efforts to ensure space
and building blocks necessary for building social and cultural cohesion in the long-term.
Fifth, if we connect questions of property destruction to matters of social complexity, ethnic
tensions and social inequalities, this triggers responses that are not limited to the material
dimensions, but explores ways of connecting the dots. This e.g. concern deeper-lying
questions of cultural rights, whether in the case of language rights, rights to the identity or
wider collective rights of particular groups to practice and transmit culture. This then becomes
about more than a loss of a given place or property, and in fact more about the ways questions
of identity, symbols and property can be mobilized to inform peace and conflict resolution.
Consider, for example, the centrality of cultural heritage and rights in peace accords bridging
long-standing divides as seen in cases such as Guatemala. In that sense, the protection of
cultural property is not (only) an ends in itself, but means and entry-point for a deeper social,
cultural and political dialogue to enhance cultural rights in the context of armed conflict and
... The premise is to broaden the discussion in the critical context of the Colombian conflict and take the theories of peacebuilding as useful for analyzing how the Colombian conflict devastated a manifestation of cultural heritage, taking as a case study the massacre of El Salado. At the same time, this chapter reviews Colombia's position and responsibility as a State Party to UNESCO and its subscription to international law, based on the Hague Convention in 1954, and which commits to a complex discussion as part of soft law, to so-called nonbinding international law or recommendations without the necessary obedience to the legal autonomy of each nation, although it is evident that human rights are reinforced through work on world heritage (García, 2005;Logan & Reeves, 2008;Logan, 2012;Ekern et al., 2012;Alatalu, 2020;Larsen, 2020). ...
... Finally, given that heritage and human rights are debated is a field in dispute (Francioni & Lixinski, 20017;Logan & Reeves, 2008;Ekern et al., 2012;Logan, 2012;Alatalu, 2020;Larsen, 2020), it can be said that these tensions are exacerbated in periods of violence and intense social conflict. Indeed, López De la Roche (2014) has documented and analyzed the effort of former President Uribe's administrations (2002-2006 and 2006-2010) to "rewrite" history, rethinking the role of the guerrillas, the way they emerged, as well as the role of the State in containing them. ...
Full-text available
After sixty years of armed conflict in Colombia, the wounds have left very deep marks within the representative social groups and their cultural manifestations. War impacted vulnerable populations, especially those rich in indigenous and black heritage. The chapter explores the case of the El Salado massacre in the region of Montes de Maria, Colombia, in which between February 16 and 22, 2000, a group of paramilitaries executed 66 people, including men, women, and children while the victims were forced to play their traditional music or the killers played the instruments after each brutal murder or rape. The chapter discovers how international and national legislation reached out late but finally recognized the brutality of one group against another, and how from the cultural heritage a community strives to forget and to prepare its next generations for the future, based on reconciliation and revaluation of its intangible cultural values.
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