Although the widespread destruction of cultural property during World War II led to an international convention designed to promote its protection (the 1954 Hague Convention), it wasn’t until 1996 that the Blue Shield was founded (Read more about our History). Today the Blue Shield are often asked why – in the face of the devastating loss of life and wider destruction seen during conflict and environmental disasters – there is a need for an organisation like the Blue Shield, when other concerns may seem so much more pressing.
“They particularly targeted monuments […] All the church belfries and the dome of the cathedral were shelled. We were crying, it was like your heart was wounded. It was the saddest day of my life.”
Marija Koyakovtich, recalling the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik.
in Bevan (2006): The Destruction of Memory. Reaktion Books; p87.
Records of the destruction of cultural heritage during armed conflict and natural disasters extend thousands of years into the past. In the last decade, however, the numbers of sites damaged or destroyed during armed conflicts can be counted in the thousands, and the rising number of environmental disasters has led to damage to and loss of heritage across the globe. There is increasing evidence of the devastating effects such destruction can have on both communities and individuals. This was clearly acknowledged by the ICC in its recent sentencing of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the destruction of religious and historic buildings in Mali. (Read about the case on the ICC website). In addition to a 9-year prison sentence, the court found him liable for 2.7 million euros of individual and collective reparations for the community of Timbuktu as recompense for the loss. There is extensive research about why cultural heritage is important to communities and the world: the Blue Shield has compiled some of the most important reasons on our page The importance of cultural heritage.
Disasters are often accompanied by a decrease in stability, which allows increased looting of archaeological sites and collections. Such looting can devastate sites, and hinder the work of staff trying to protect them, as it is often just one part of widespread property looting and the theft of institutional infrastructure. In Iraq in 2003, for example, alongside the widely reported looting of thousands of objects, even the National Museum’s air conditioning units were taken, as these had been prohibited for years under economic sanctions, to say nothing of the computers, desks, filing systems, and other infrastructure. Whilst material of this sort might have been sold or used locally, stolen archaeological artefacts are often illicitly trafficked across numerous country borders, sometimes funding organised crime and the purchase of weapons (for example, see this infographic by the Antiquities Coalition, or this report by Defence Against Democracy), with only a small portion of the money going to those who carried out the looting.
“She recalls entering the museum and seeing the staff standing in the lobby, dazed. “They were in such a state of shock that I remember not a single one of them was able to finish a sentence. It was eerie and terrible to see the museum empty like that.”
… [In February 2015] Al-Gailani went back again, and discovered to her delight that some beloved artefacts had made a return journey from her own personal Museum of Lost Objects.
“I was going round the museum and seeing some of the objects which I thought were looted,” she says. “To see them again, it’s like seeing friends.”
Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani remembers visiting the National Museum shortly after it had been looted in this interview with the BBC.
In conflict, heritage loss can become catastrophic. Wiping out evidence of where people lived (also known as cultural cleansing) is a tactic used by groups who go on to commit genocide; groups who have fled their homeland are less likely to return if their culturally significant buildings have been destroyed. We have multiple records of groups in the Balkans Wars who destroyed their enemy’s religious buildings to reduce the likelihood of their return, and there are increasing reports of groups like ISIS using similar methods. (See the reports on the website Targeting History and Memory.)
In addition to the loss of physical cultural heritage, like buildings and archives, the intangible cultural heritage of communities is also easily destroyed during times of conflict and disaster. Communities can no longer meet to conduct traditional activities, and they may become widely scattered refugee groups, or the places where rituals and traditions were carried out may have been destroyed. In Syria, for example, traditional methods of hand-weaving silk that once made Damascene silk famous on the Silk Road are under threat as much of the silk crop was destroyed in the fighting, the factories were badly damaged, and those who had the skill fled. Other losses to Syria’s intangible heritage include Sufi singing, and the 3rd century Christian Urfalee chants, feared lost in the fighting in Aleppo (according to The Guardian). Even food is changing for many: traditional methods of cooking were passed from mother to daughter. Now, for the thousands of displaced Syrians, items like meat are a luxury, and whilst organisations like the World Food Programme try their best to make sure people don’t starve, nutritional isn’t the same as traditional (according to Newsweek). Examples like these represent only a tiny handful of the wide variety of intangible cultural heritage practices across the globe – UNESCO maintains a List of intangible cultural heritage in urgent need of safeguarding on their website.
Founded in accordance with the international laws designed to prevent the widespread heritage destruction seen during World War II, the Blue Shield network strives to prevent or mitigate damage to heritage. We work in partnership with national armed forces and international coalitions, as well as national governments, inter-governmental agencies, heritage organisations, disaster risk reduction teams and other NGOs, to manage the risks to cultural heritage in the event of natural or human-made disasters, and to assist those working in the field to protect cultural property in emergency situations. Read more about the risks to cultural heritage during armed conflict and environmental disasters on our page Threats to heritage.
Visit our page The importance of cultural heritage
Read more about the risks to cultural heritage during armed conflict and environmental disasters on our page Threats to heritage
Learn more about the laws preventing looting and illicit trafficking in our Law Library
Learn more about the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in our Law Library
Visit the website Targeting History and Memory, which examines the ICTY and the investigation, reconstruction and prosecution of the crimes against cultural and religious heritage