Throughout history, cultural heritage has been destroyed in conflict and disaster, devastating the communities that produced it. 3000-year-old tablets record deliberate damage inflicted by ancient Mesopotamian kings as part of the destruction of conquered nations; the Colosseum of Rome, now part of a World Heritage site, was partly made from materials looted from other sites, for example those taken during the sack of Jerusalem; Pompeii was buried in a lava tomb, its remains preserved alongside the shapes of the people who used them; poets spoke of the Mongols sacking cultural treasures like Baghdad… the list is extensive.
“You ask me about the sack of Baghdad… It was so horrible there are no words to describe it. I wish I had died earlier and had not seen how the fools destroyed these treasures of knowledge and learning. I thought I understood the world, but this holocaust is so strange and pointless that I am struck dumb. The evolution of time and its decisions have defeated all reason and knowledge.”
Persian poet Saadi of Shiraz, on the destruction of Baghdad by Genghis Khan 1258
The first international treaties to protect cultural property from the effects of armed conflict date to the 19th century, and have continued to evolve. Following the widespread destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was written to create rules to protect cultural property during armed conflicts. This Convention was the first widely adopted international treaty to focus exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the context of war, and which highlighted the concept of common heritage. (The first treaty was the Roerich Pact of 1935, but this was never adopted outside the Americas.)
In order to protect endangered cultural heritage, the International Committee of the Blue Shield was created in 1996 by the four non-governmental organisations, which represent professionals active in the fields of archives, libraries, monuments and sites, and museums:
- ICA: International Council on Archives
- ICOM: International Council of Museums
- IFLA: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
- ICOMOS: International Council on Monuments and Sites
The four organisations worked together to prepare for, and respond to, emergency situations that could affect cultural heritage. They were joined in 2005 by the CCAAA (Co-ordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations), who later left in 2012. In 2008, the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS) was established to coordinate the work of the national committees.
They took up the emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention as the symbol of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, in line with Article 17 of the Convention.
- The distinctive emblem may be used alone only as a means of identification of: (b) the persons responsible for the duties of control in accordance with the Regulations for the execution of the Convention;
By the time the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention was written in 1999, the ICBS was a recognised advisory body to the Inter-Governmental Committee for cultural property protection in armed conflict.
Article 27 Functions
- […] To assist in the implementation of its functions, the Committee may invite to its meetings, in an advisory capacity, eminent professional organizations such as those which have formal relations with UNESCO, including the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) and its constituent bodies. Representatives of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Rome Centre) (ICCROM) and of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) may also be invited to attend in an advisory capacity.
In 2016, ICBS and ANCBS amalgamated to become simply “The Blue Shield”.
By October 2018, the main Convention has been ratified by 133 States, the First Protocol by 110, and the Second Protocol by 82 States. This primary context is also informed by a number of other international legal instruments, such as the 1998 Rome Statue, and a number of UN Security Council resolutions, as well as the international cultural protection agenda as set by the United Nations and UNESCO. In 2016, the International Criminal Court successfully prosecuted the destruction of cultural property as a war crime for the first time, and in 2017, the UN issued the first Security Council Resolution (2347) exclusively addressing cultural heritage destruction.
Working within this framework is the Blue Shield, a network of national committees operating in 29 countries, and more under construction. These national committees are coordinated by an international committee – the Blue Shield International Board.
For more information about the founding of ICBS, read our page on the history of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS)
For more information about the founding of ANCBS, read our page on the history of the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS)
Read more about the international laws that govern our work in our Law Library