Cultural property can also be damaged by deliberate targeting of two types. Put (very) simply, a site may be deliberately targeted if it has become a military objective – for example, in 2016, ARA News reported “The terror group [ISIS] has a plan to avoid the US-led coalitions airstrikes and “the best way is to hide weapons and media centers inside the mosques”. In using the sites in this way, the site loses its protection, and may become a legitimate military target. However, just because it is a legitimate target, this does not mean it will be targeted.

Improved documentation of events from social media has added to multiple records of the deliberate targeting of cultural property for no clear military gain. This can range from devastating attacks on city centres to incidences of vandalism. In World War II, for example, the Allies bombed the historic German towns of Lübeck and Rostock. Furious, Hitler ordered retaliatory raids on historic British centres, like York and Bath. At the other end of the spectrum, in 2003 in Iraq, statues and mosaics of Saddam Hussein were destroyed and defaced. It is also becoming more common for heritage destruction to be linked to attacks on the populations for whom it is important. The shelling of the World Heritage site of Dubrovnik, and burning of the Sarajevo library are high profile cases of the almost endemic specific targeting of the enemy’s cultural property during the conflict in the Balkans. This was seen again in the symbolic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and the targeting of cultural sites in Iraq, Mali, and Syria, notably the destruction of parts of the World Heritage site of Palmyra, which has been linked to purely propagandistic motives.

Mitigation: International law condones attacks against cultural property if certain criteria are met: the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict lays down a basic framework for attacks of this type, which may unfortunately be necessary. Such actions must be assessed against the Laws of Armed Conflict to ensure that the attack is proportionate, necessary, responsible and obeys the laws of distinction. In all cases the attack should be aimed at the people or the equipment at the site as far as possible, and never just at the site.

In addition to raising awareness of the responsibilities of armed groups under international and customary law, peacetime preparations should be made for the protection of cultural property, as by the time armed conflict or a disaster occurs, it is often too late. Protection of cultural property during conflict is context-specific and sometimes there is little that can be done during conflict to mitigate against the specific targeting of sites. The emphasis, where possible, has to be on proactive protection prior to the conflict. At the same time, the international community has begun to take legal action against those responsible for unnecessary destruction, ensuring that such crimes do not go unpunished.

Photo: The Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, outside a period of official armed conflict, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Left, 1963, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by UNESCO. Photo: Right, 2008, uploaded to WIkimedia Commons by mangostar.

Read more about the 1954 Hague Convention and its recommendations for peacetime protection our Law Library

Read more about cultural heritage prosecutions in our Law Library