International humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) are two distinct but complementary bodies of law. IHL applies specifically to armed conflict and governs the conduct of those fighting. Human rights law applies at all times, in peace and in war, but some parts of it can be suspended in a state of emergency, whereas IHL can never be suspended. Several fundamental rights must always be respected, such as: the right to life, the prohibition of torture and inhuman punishment or treatment, the outlawing of slavery or servitude, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. (We have provided only a basic introduction to this area of law: a more detailed introduction is available on the website of the NGO Rashid International).

Human Rights Law

The foundation of human rights law is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It sets out fundamental human rights that should be universally protected and is one of three parts of The International Bill of Human Rights. The key articles relating to cultural rights are:

Article 22: Everyone […] has the right to […] social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
Article 27: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.

The second part of the Bill is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which develops the ideas laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 1: All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely […] pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Article 27: Minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, and to use their own language.

According to the third part of the Bill of Human Rights is The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

Article 1: 1. All peoples have the right [… to] freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Article 3: The States Parties undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights
Article 15: 1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone: (a) To take part in cultural life […]
Article 15: 2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.

This covenant creates an obligation to preserve and allow access to humankind’s cultural heritage.

The UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights

The UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, who has studied intentional heritage destruction as part of her mandate, has suggested that cultural heritage is both tangible and intangible, that cultural heritage and the people who use it must be protected, and that people’s right to use and enjoy cultural heritage must be protected as well. All States must respect and protect cultural heritage in accordance with international standards, must ensure accountability for acts of intentional destruction of such heritage, and must cooperate to protect cultural heritage.

Resolution 33/20 Cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage

Resolution 33/20: Cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016, containing a number of new recommendations. The Resolution called upon States to respect, promote and protect the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, including the ability to access and enjoy cultural heritage; and urged all parties to armed conflicts to refrain from any unlawful military use or targeting of cultural property, in full conformity with their obligations under international humanitarian law; as well as increased cooperation between states to tackle looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property and facilitating restitution. The Resolution also called for the recognition of the protection of cultural heritage as an important component of humanitarian assistance, including in armed conflict, and called for the safety and security of cultural rights defenders involved in the protection of cultural heritage to be protected, including by investigating and, where appropriate, bringing to justice anyone alleged to have harmed them. (Read the Resolution on the UNs website).

For more information on human rights, see the United Nations Human Rights website

More information about how the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is a violation of human rights is available on the Special Rapporteur’s website.

Access more resources on cultural heritage and human rights in our Document Library

Alternatively, read about Treaty Law and the 1954 Hague Convention

Read about Customary Law, International Humanitarian Law, and the Laws of Armed Conflict

Or read about the laws against Looting and Illicit Trafficking