The destruction of cultural heritage has played a prominent role in several ongoing and recent conflicts, adding to the loss of life and humanitarian crises that follow them. In light of this, on 29 September, as part of its series on humanitarian law and policy, PHAP will host an online learning session on the legal protection of cultural heritage in armed conflict. We had the opportunity to speak with the guest expert for the session – Kristin Hausler, Dorset Senior Research Fellow in Public International Law at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) – about her views on the current relevance of this topic.
Kristin, why is the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflict under international law an important topic to understand?
Over the last few years, deliberate attacks against cultural heritage have regularly made frontline news. A number of rebel groups appear to have adopted a policy of intentionally damaging or destroying cultural sites and objects. In addition, cultural heritage has often suffered from collateral damage as a result of conflicts. Given the importance of cultural heritage for the identity of communities and for humanity as a whole, it is particularly important to understand the rules protecting cultural property in armed conflict, especially because this heritage is often impossible to replace.
Most conflicts nowadays are within rather than between states. Does this have an impact on the legal protection of cultural heritage?
As I will be explaining in my presentation in this learning session, most of the key rules protecting cultural heritage in armed conflict are also applicable in non-international armed conflict and thus to the actions of non-state armed groups. One of the major issues, however, is that there is a lack of awareness and knowledge of those rules, in particular within rebel groups. I will be aiming to shed some light on the rules applicable in non-international armed conflict, hoping that increased understanding among humanitarian practitioners of the applicability of those rules may in turn enhance the protection of cultural heritage.
Recently, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for destroying Timbuktu’s holy shrines in 2012. What consequences do you think this will have for the protection of cultural heritage under international law?
While international courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), have already found individuals guilty of the war crime of attacking cultural monuments in time of armed conflict, it is the first case which solely focuses on the destruction of cultural heritage and the first of its kind before the ICC. It therefore sends a strong signal to those who may perpetrate this type of war crime: domestic courts must prosecute such actions and, if domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute such crimes, the ICC is also ready and able to do so. This case underlines that attacking cultural heritage is a serious international crime and may possibly act as a deterrent or, at least, encourage domestic courts to prosecute this sort of crimes against cultural heritage.
Join us with Kristin Hausler on 29 September for the online learning session on the protection of cultural heritage. The event will aim at bringing further clarity on the current legal frameworks that protect cultural property during both international and non-international armed conflict, and how non-state armed groups are also bound to international treaty and customary law, taking into account recent developments. Read more and register at phap.org/29sep2016
Interviewed by Liz Arnanz