Should cultural monuments become an active issue of the human rights agenda?

Director of the Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum, Producer of the New Tears of Araxes and South Caucasus Specialist for Amnesty International, Simon Maghakyan has asked, ‘when does targeting monuments become a human rights abuse [or a crime against humanity]?’ ‘Should cultural monuments become an active issue of the human rights agenda?’

Crimes against community properties as crimes against communities(1)

Just in case any archaeologists or cultural heritage activists were panicked by hearing that question, as his work shows – and I’ve followed his work for years – it was a rhetorical question.(2) Maghakyan explained the role of Turkey’s planned provocative attack on an enclaved monument in Syria – and other power/state crimes of cultural destruction in Mali, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan – as constituent elements of attacks on communities (for instance, terrorism and ethnic cleansing of minority communities).

During the war in Mali, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Malian Association for Human Rights (la Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH)) and (Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH)), Human Rights Watch and others documented the interconnections between multiple gross human rights abuses; and peace researcher Mark Kersten explained the need for prosecution of cultural property crimes for Justice in Conflict.(3)

UNESCO: ineffective mid-conflict, critical post-conflict?


Maghakyan also raised the issue of ‘the ineffectiveness of UNESCO – the international body charged with protecting our global heritage – to prevent and punish destruction’. Certainly, UNESCO has very limited power in the middle of any conflict. It can drive and coordinate work to conserve or reconstruct heritage at risk, including in Afghanistan, Mali and Syria; but it cannot directly physically intervene itself.


Still, in the same way that the 1949 Geneva Conventions can help to combat the destruction of home and civilian life (domicide/urbicide/genocide), the 1954 Hague Convention (and its 1954 and 1999 protocols) and UNESCO’s international conventions can help to combat the destruction of culture and community (politicide/urbicide/genocide).


Indeed, discussing the destruction of cultural property in Mali, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stated that ‘attacks against undefended civilian buildings… [are] war crime[s]‘. Salafi Islamist Ansar Dine were dismissive of UNESCO and committed to destruction. But Prosecutor Bensouda was equally insistent that perpetrators would ‘be held accountable‘ and ‘justice [would] prevail’. And UNESCO are critical to the ICC’s mission.

Crimes against humanity

Under the 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC, part of the definition of a crime against humanity includes widespread or systematic persecution (‘intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights… by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity’) of ‘any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender… or other grounds’, which encompasses the war crime of extensive illegal property destruction and the act of genocide through harm with intent to destroy a group.


Ansar Dine will probably not be held accountable (adequately, individually or collectively), though that would evidence the weakness of the international community in general (not UNESCO in particular). However, the 1954 Hague Convention and 1972 UNESCO Convention were integral to the prosecution and conviction of Commander Miodrag Jokić and General Pavle Strugar at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and have established customary international humanitarian law. If Ansar Dine are prosecuted and punished, charges will include ‘attacks against protected objects‘, and UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention and other work will play a critical role in the ICC’s prosecution.

Cultural property as an embodiment and enabler of a shared life

Hopefully, then, it is clear that the violent destruction of cultural property is intrinsically a human rights violation. Moreover, such destruction may provide an early warning sign of other, bloodier human rights violations; so monitoring and intervention may enable the prevention of worse crimes.

Furthermore, the prevention of such destruction (or the reconstruction of destroyed property) may support the re-establishment of intercommunal trust, a shared life and a sustainable economy. Indeed, the act of reconstruction itself may teach an encouraging lesson ‘about destruction, and resistance, and rebuilding‘.


1: colloquially, crimes against cultural property can be called crimes against culture or crimes against history.

2: Still, it is a little depressing that it makes sense as a rhetorical question.

3: I am (slightly and narrowly) wary of exceptional punishment for destruction of cultural community property (historic buildings that are identified with a particular community) above and beyond punishment for destruction of non-cultural community property (contemporary buildings that are identified with a particular community).

I appreciate exceptional punishment’s value in targeting and deterring crimes against communities. My slight and narrow concern is that such a legal structure can denigrate the everyday architecture of community life, and that it can enable asymmetric post-war struggle between state-empowered communities and state-disempowered communities (for example, if state-empowered groups destroyed minorities’ homes, whereas state-disempowered groups destroyed state-protected monuments).

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