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Protecting cultural buildings in war zones

Isis Palmyra

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict enters British law today (Tuesday 12 December 2017).

From now, all British military personnel will be bound by its rules. Failing to protect cultural property, or damaging it unless there is a military necessity to do so, will be a war crime.

The dilemma of how to protect culture and heritage in war zones, while making human life a priority, is being addressed by OU research.

Derek Matravers, OU Professor of Philosophy, has been awarded £409,094 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to research the ethics of protecting symbols of culture and identity in war zones.

He will work with Professor Helen Frowe, Director of the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, a specialist in the philosophy of war, to formulate the principles, and thus guide the practice of cultural protection.

During the three-year Heritage in War Project, the academics will aim to answer three questions:

  • When it is it alright to intentionally damage sites of cultural property in war?
  • What can be done to protect this cultural property and at what cost?
  • What is the appropriate response to damaged sites of cultural property?

“This is a tricky philosophical issue, as people are reluctant to push saving buildings as opposed to people,” said Professor Matravers. “A recent example of this dilemma was whether to put a sniper in a mosque tower which would deliver a military advantage, but also make the mosque a target and thus liable to be destroyed.”

According to Professor Matravers, the need for clearer guidelines for the military also became evident in recent events:
“What can we do or not do to clear ISIS out of sites such as Palmyra?” he asks. “Should troops be sent to guard museums, even at the expense of protecting people?”

He also cites the case of Baghdad Museum, which was looted because the US Army would not allocate troops to protect it and the fact that the Iraqis deliberately stored military equipment near ancient sites, knowing that would incline Coalition forces not to bomb them.

The project will result in a ‘Framework Document’ outlining the principles behind Cultural Property Protection (CPP) and ‘Codes of Conduct’ for the military; and a course for use by members of the military, NGOs, and other interested parties.

In addition to academic partners, the project team includes members of the British, US, and Norwegian Armed Forces; an international lawyer with extensive experience of working on UN Conventions; politicians (Baroness Andrews, who was instrumental in pushing for the UK ratification of the Convention); the British Museum ‘Iraq Scheme’; and the International Committee of the Blue Shield (the only organisation created and mandated under international law to protect cultural heritage in war zones).

Read more about Professor Matravers research.

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