The Importance of Cultural Heritage

The Blue Shield’s work is founded on the belief that cultural heritage – tangible and intangible – is important. It is a vital expression of the culture that makes up unique communities and its loss during conflict and disaster can be catastrophic.

Why do we feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of massacred people? Perhaps because we see our own mortality in the collapse of the bridge. We expect people to die; we count on our lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilisation is something else. The bridge in all its beauty and grace was built to outline us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity … A dead woman is one of us – but the bridge is all of us forever.

Cultural heritage is the heritage we have inherited: our legacy, our memories, physical places, objects and intangible beliefs and practices, and so much more. Intangible heritage can often be associated with particular tangible cultural heritage. For example, placing poppies on a war memorial is a practice commemorating an event, but it takes place at a physical location. In Australia, many aboriginal groups have detailed practices passed down for many generations which are integral components of places in the landscape. Our heritage – physical and non-physical – is an important part of who we are and what we identify with, as individuals and communities.

This cultural identity relies on the memory of communities and individuals: it is key to identity, well-being, decisions and actions. Although memories are not always positive, and can be contested, they are an integral part of individuals, communities and societies. Cultural property is a powerful tool in determining what is remembered – and what is forgotten or obscured. For example, after conflicts and disasters, buildings can provide visible symbols of who is given priority in rebuilding if the community is divided – or who is not given permission at all.

Blue Shield strives to prevent the loss of heritage to communities, recognising that it is a fundamental part of their wellbeing. There are several key reasons for this.

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Cultural property is central to the cultural and social life of communities and at a national level is frequently used as the ‘stage’ for aspects of intangible cultural heritage (for example, national ceremonies often take place at historic buildings). There can, of course, be ‘negative’ issues involved in these associations of tangible and intangible heritage: ISIS used the Roman Theatre at the World Heritage site of Palmyra for mass executions in 2016. More frequently, however, cultural property helps preserve national and local traditions and culture while helping to build a community’s association with its heritage, and thereby creating identity.

Photo: Roman Theatre at Palmyra, 2010

By Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Plaque of names on a wall, with spray painted graffiti on it.

Political Uses

Cultural property is often used for political ends. Saddam Hussein deliberately linked himself to ancient Assyrian kings to legitimise his reign, building a palace at the ancient site of Babylon, and inscribing his name on the ancient bricks. It can even act as a catalyst for conflict: Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, Ireland, was deliberately bombed in 1966 because of its colonial associations. More positively, cultural property can become a tool to promote mutual recognition and reconciliation through a shared, accepted, memory of a common (or difficult) past. Following the difficulties the Spanish people experienced in reconciling their memories of a bitter civil war, the Spanish government declared 2006 a Year of Memory in an effort to reconcile the memories and the fallen from both sides of the conflict.

Photo: Monument to the fallen of the nationalist side in Spanish Civil War in Saint Jacques church, in Cangas, Pontevedra, Galicia. The graffiti reads “Fascist murders. Don’t forget Don’t forgive.” 2011. By Javierme, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

See one of the bricks stamped by Saddam Hussein in our Media Library.

See one of the bricks stamped by Saddam Hussein in our Old Dublin Town website.

Read about the Year of Memory in the Independent newspaper , or if you have Academic Library Access, read work by Dr Dacia Viejo-Rose

Photos of the original Geneva Conventions

International Humanitarian Law

Cultural property protection during armed conflict is an obligation under international humanitarian law (IHL). In addition to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict and its 2 Protocols, cultural property protection is an explicit part of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which includes destruction of historic monuments and religious buildings as war crimes. The Blue Shield has a role to play in debating the balance of military necessity (as defined in IHL) and humanity in each and every armed conflict, each one of which will be unique, not least in terms of the military means and methods employed.

Photo: The original document of the first Geneva Convention from 1864, on loan to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Kevin Quinn, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about Treaty Law and the 1954 Hague Convention in our Law Library.

Read more about Customary Law, the Geneva Conventions, and Military Necessity in our Law Library.

Photos of set of stone plaques with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inscribed on it.

International Human Rights Law

In addition to its position under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage is guaranteed under International Human Rights Law (IHRL), in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This includes the right to understand, visit, make use of, maintain, exchange elements of, and develop cultural heritage, as well as to benefit from your cultural heritage and others’, and has been interpreted as an obligation to design and implement preservation and safeguarding policies and programmes. This was supported by Resolution 33/20 on Cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage (adopted 2016), and in the report by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights.

Photo: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights display at the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Idaho, is one of the few places on the planet where the complete text is on permanent public display. 2017. Photo by: By Kencf0618 [CC BY-SA 4.0. from Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about Cultral heritage and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in our  Law Library, where you can also read about Resolution 33/20

Read more about the work of the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website

Historic houses adjoining a historic bridge over the River Wear

Medical / Wellbeing

Research suggests there is a relationship between historic environments and an individual’s ‘wellbeing’. Those who live in historic environments appear to have higher ‘social capital’ – a term which refers to benefits in terms of wellbeing, good health and civil engagement. Research (also in academia) suggests that such communities tend to be more cohesive and, it has been suggested, tend to be less expensive medically to look after.

By Roger Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Roger Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bedouin camels in the foreground, with rock cut tombs in the background.

Sustainable Economic Development

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. Cultural property protection is an important element in protecting individual livelihoods, the national economy, and security, which in turn is an element of human rights.

Photo: Camels for tourists at Petra World Heritage site, Jordan, 2013.

Photo by E. Cunliffe.

Read more about how cultural heritage relates to sustainable development in our International Initiatives section.

Read more about cultural heritage and human rights in our Law Library

Historic ferry terminal with a tree growing out of it.

Academic Value

Access to cultural property is critical to our study and understanding of both past and contemporary culture and of what it means to be human. Regardless of whether cultural property is claimed by only a small community or is considered to have value for the whole of humanity, if the physical evidence of past and contemporary culture does not exist, or if the community remembering intangible cultural heritage has been destroyed, a vital element in our ability to understand human society and its development has been lost, and with it, a vital piece of who we are.

Photo: Wick Ferry terminal, Christchurch, United Kingdom. 1900.

By: L’Estrange, Robert Augustus Henry, from the QUT Alumni Donations Collection, Queensland University of Technology. Digital Collections. CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.