Blue Shield and the Armed Forces

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.

“While geopolitics, national borders, critical infrastructure and military installations constitute the physical geography of conventional warfare, CP [cultural property] constitutes critical elements of the human domain of its geography. If this holds true, and if culture and identity politics do remain at the center of armed conflicts, we can expect CP to play an increasing role in conflict geographies. A strong argument can thus be made for placing CP broadly viewed – including historical buildings, sites of worships, monuments – at the heart of the human domain concept, and thus the Special Operations doctrine.”

Blue Shield International is working with armed forces and heritage professionals around the world to develop understanding of the responsibilities of both parties under International Law. We are an official partner of NATO, and actively encourage our national committees to work in partnership with their armed forces. Cultural property protection in armed conflict and following environmental disasters can only be effective when there is a true partnership between heritage professionals, governments, and those deployed. You can read more about this on our Training page.

Armed forces across the world are becoming increasingly aware of the role of cultural property in conflicts, both in terms of its loss, but also its potential to prolong the fighting, evidenced in a number of military publications, available in our Document Library. Cultural property protection can even be a key component of the mission itself: the MINUSMA Mandate for the UN peacekeeping force in Mali (renewed in Resolution 2364 (2017)) included:

stylized image of white balanced scales on a circular royal blue background

22 (c) Support for cultural preservation

To assist the Malian authorities, as necessary and feasible, in protecting from attack the cultural and historical sites in Mali, in collaboration with UNESCO …

41. Requests MINUSMA to consider the environmental impacts of its operations when fulfilling its mandated tasks and, in this context, to manage them as appropriate and in accordance with applicable and “relevant General Assembly resolutions and United Nations rules and regulations, and to operate mindfully in the vicinity of cultural and historical sites.”

Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali

Now protected as part of the UN Security Council MINUSMA Mandate

© Photo by Lazare Eloundou Assomo. UNESCO, CC BY-SA 3.0-igo, via Wikimedia Mandate Commons

Blue Shield will assist any genuine initiative by any nation state or warring faction, no matter what the status of the conflict, or moral determination of its conduct, to achieve the goal of protecting cultural property, in line with the principles of international humanitarian law under which we operate. The same principles apply to equivalent circumstances during complex or other emergencies.

Cultural property protection is increasingly seen as what the armed forces refer to as a ‘force multiplier’: protecting it may not lead to mission success, but failure to protect it can make a mission more difficult, and there are number of important reasons to protect it.

BSI staff supporting NATO exercises

© Blue Shield International 2018

First, cultural property protection is mandated under customary international humanitarian law (IHL), and in particular the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its two Protocols (1954/1999). The armed forces of countries that are parties to laws such as the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute have direct legal responsibilities under IHL. However, even the armed forces of countries that have not ratified laws have obligations regarding CPP under customary international law – common practice regarded as legally binding. (Read more about the laws protecting cultural property in our Law Library).

Cultural property can become a direct target on the battlefield because of its cultural associations. For example, many sites were deliberately targeted in the Balkans Wars, and some of those responsible were prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Understanding these relationships – or failing to understand them – can have direct impact on mission success. (Learn more about cultural heritage and Genocide in this Think Tank Paper (pdf) by the J. Paul Getty Trust, or see work by Robert Bevan).

The looting of cultural (and civilian) property during conflict may provide funding for parties involved in conflicts. By restricting such looting, the armed forces can choke-off a strand of funding for the opposition and potentially save lives and shorten the conflict. (Learn more about looting in our Threats to heritage page).

Cultural property frequently has value to local and national economies, and can contribute to economic stability. Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries. A desire to see other people’s culture and heritage is a major element of tourism and in many countries is a large part of a tourism industry that provides a significant proportion of the national economy. The World Bank called tourism and cultural heritage “drivers of poverty reduction and shared prosperity“. If it is damaged and destroyed unnecessarily, then a key facet of economic stability may be removed, undermining political agendas and, in certain circumstances, requiring the military to remain deployed for longer. (Learn more about the value of cultural heritage on our Importance of cultural heritage page).

When cultural heritage is deliberately targeted, this can inflame social tensions, and prolong, and even intensify, the conflict. In Iraq, following the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, 32 retaliatory attacks were carried out, with a corresponding loss of life for both troops and civilians: the event of often considered the start of Iraq’s descent into civil war. Such activity may require an occupying or peacekeeping force to remain deployed for longer than anticipated or desired. (Learn more in our Document Library).

Unfortunately, there are recent examples of armed forces in conflict, or troops deployed to help following environmental disasters, failing to protect cultural property or, worse, unintentionally damaging it. Such actions can alienate the local community and can have serious, negative, implications for the military mission. In some cases, this has led directly or indirectly to mission problems, bad publicity, and, in extremis, to an escalation of hostilities and casualties. Conversely, in certain circumstances, protecting CP can act as a force multiplier, supporting a mission. Even if it does not make the mission easier, it will minimise the risks of loss of community support.

Visit Our Training Page to learn more about our training in cultural property protection for heritage professionals, governments and armed forces

Read the Blue Shield article for NATO Open to learn more about how cultural property is a mission relevant priority, available on the NATO Open Publications website.

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