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The challenges of protecting cultural heritage in armed conflict

Emma Cunliffe, Paul Fox and Peter Stone

Panel from the Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting a procession displaying objects taken from the Temple of Jerusalem after the sack of the city in AD 70.  By: Beth Hatefutsoth, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The looting and destruction of cultural heritage has been a feature of armed conflict for almost as long we have records of conflict. For thousands of years it was perceived as the right of the victor to take an enemy’s property and destroy what could not be taken. Assyrian reliefs show the sack of temples and the removal of the gods; the colosseum in Rome was built with spoils taken from the sack of Jerusalem; centrepieces of many European national museum collections, including the British Museum and the Louvre, were acquired during campaigns abroad.

Assyrian Wall relief from Nimrud, Iraq, showing the removal of captured gods. British Museum number 118931. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Yet for millennia, attempts have been made to limit war, and set standards for troop conduct. Military theorists from Sun Tzu in 6th century BC China to von Clausewitz in 19th century Europe have argued that damaging and destroying the cultural heritage of vanquished enemies is bad military practice. Lieber’s codification of the Articles of War in 1863 – part of an attempt to provide ethical guidance during a bitter civil war - included clauses specifically protecting museum collections and libraries. These clauses were repeated and developed in the ensuing Hague Conventions on land warfare of 1899 and 1907. However, it was not until after the widespread destruction of cultural property in the Second World War that new international laws were written, focussing exclusively on the protection of cultural property in armed conflict – the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its First Protocol (1954).

A close reading of the 1954 Hague Convention and its Protocol demonstrates that they were based on the experiences during World War II. The requirement in Military measures (Article 7) to establish “specialist personnel whose purpose will be to secure respect for cultural property” is a clear reference to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit (MFAA), better known as the Monuments Men, who served throughout Europe and the Far East and who were responsible for saving thousands of artworks and buildings. Following the war, the unit was disbanded, presumably based on the expectation that each country would go on to establish its own unit, as recommended by the new legislation.

In many ways, there is no clearer demonstration of the importance of cultural property protection in armed conflict than the 1954 Hague Convention. The General Conference of UNESCO acknowledged the need for such legislation and established a committee to draft it in 1951, just seven years after the end of World War II. 56 States were ultimately involved in drafting it. The Preamble to the Convention makes explicit reference to the destruction so recently experienced:

"The High Contracting Parties:

Recognizing that cultural property has suffered grave damage during recent armed conflicts and that, by reason of the developments in the technique of warfare, it is in increasing danger of destruction;

Being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world;

Considering that the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and that it is important that this heritage should receive international protection; […]

Being determined to take all possible steps to protect cultural property; Have agreed upon the following provisions”.

The Preamble establishes that cultural property destruction is a grave issue because of the recent armed conflict, not despite it, and that its preservation during conflict is a matter of international importance. This importance is so great that “the preservation of the cultural heritage is not only a matter for the State on whose territory it is located but 'is of great importance for all peoples of the world and that it is important that this heritage should receive international protection'. The concern for such protection thus transcends the borders of a single State and becomes a matter of international importance.” (Toman 1996; 24).

Following the deliberate targeting of cultural heritage during the internal fighting in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s (see Walasek 2015), a Second Protocol was drafted in 1999, which tightened perceived flaws in the original Convention and extended the clauses relating to non-international armed conflict. Today, the 1954 Convention has been ratified by 133 State Parties, and its Protocols have been ratified by 110 and 82 State Parties, respectively. It remains the primary international legislation regarding cultural property protection (CPP) in the event of armed conflict, laying out measures to be carried out in peace and during conflict to establish the best possible protection for cultural property.

Yet despite the apparently widespread uptake of the 1954 Hague Convention, cultural property is being destroyed in today’s armed conflicts at perhaps a greater rate than ever before, causing many to call the Convention moribund, or even dead, claiming that it is not fit for purpose. Although we argue this is not the case, there are clearly a number of challenges in developing effective CPP.

Governmental Inaction

In the years since the 1954 Hague Convention was first drafted, many of the lessons of the Second World War have been forgotten. Few governments have enacted the safeguarding provisions of the Convention to proactively prepare for armed conflict during peacetime. Although some museums have independently prepared refuges for their collections, governments have remained largely uninvolved in the requirements for either refuges or in situ protection measures. Yet, when staff from Blue Shield International recently attended NATO’s Exercise Trident Jaguar 2018, the Blue Shield report found that activities such as emergency museum evacuation were highly dependent on governmental instruction to its armed forces to marshal the resources to achieve it. In Syria, only the armed forces, sent by the government, had the capacity to evacuate the museum at Palmyra, just before ISIS took over and famously videoed their destruction of the remaining contents of the museum (and beheaded the octogenarian former curator).

One of the most recent signatories to the Convention is the United Kingdom (who ratified the Convention and both Protocols in 2017). The Implementation Guidance notes “The government considers that those responsible for cultural property should already be taking appropriate measures to safeguard their property against a range of potential disasters and emergencies […] Therefore it does not intend to impose any additional safeguarding requirements during peacetime.”

However, a position paper (2017) published in response by UK Blue Shield quoted Macalister (2015), suggesting significant work remains to be done: “a recent review of emergency planning found that ‘The cultural heritage sector [is] not well integrated in the wider emergency planning structures of the UK.’” (p 6). This is not uncommon. Like many countries, the UK also does not intend to place the blue shield emblem of the Convention on the properties it wishes to indicate are protected, an action which would significantly contribute to awareness raising amongst the public, and which has practical utility to troops on the ground.

Many countries consider it “unthinkable” that they will be attacked on national soil, and so will not invest the resources to implement safeguarding measures. However, the measures needed in armed conflict, and following natural disasters, such as smooth evacuations, are similar to those needed for terror attacks, such as the one plotted on the British Museum. After their experiences of the devastating museum looting in 2003, the National Museum of Iraq practised evacuation in case of further conflicts: it took 13 days. Following the threat from ISIS, additional practice lowered this time to two days (Iraq Museum curator, pers. comm, 2016). Few other museums are so well prepared.

Although we argue that it has not fulfilled all the recommended actions under international law, the UK is one of a handful of countries to have an inventory of the sites it wishes to be protected. According to leading CPP lawyers, “The most fundamental preconditions to protecting cultural property during hostilities are to identify what and where the cultural property to be protected is.” (O’ Keefe et al. 2016, p 23, our emphasis). Likewise, a NATO report (Rosén 2017) recommended that a "CPP data layer "[i]s a critical decision support tool and precondition for engaging […] on a strategic and tactical level."

Yet few countries have prepared an inventory of their cultural property, some from indifference, some as they lack the information, and some from fear that it will be misused. In the Second World War, the Roberts Commission for the Protection of Historical Monuments provided lists of cultural properties with descriptions and annotated maps for thousands of sites. Despite the advent of GIS, Google Earth, and worldwide communications systems, we have less information on cultural locations available today, although several projects are trying to remedy this. However, inventory creation is an intensely time-consuming, severely underfunded job. The Blue Shield is preparing some of the first guidance on what is legally eligible for an inventory, and on ways to prepare one – information that has been sorely lacking.

At the heart of a CP inventory, and embedded in the Hague Convention, lies the concept of prioritisation – that in the event of a conflict it may be necessary to prioritise resources and make tough choices. The 1954 Hague Convention applies to “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” (Article 1). However, the Convention also recommends that a limited number of locations of very great importance are placed under Special Protection. The Second Protocol (1999) brought in an additional regime, for sites of the greatest importance to humanity. However, for a variety of reasons, very few sites have been placed on the International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection, or on the International List of Cultural Property Under Enhanced Protection. Yet, without these measures in place, it is impossible to prioritise CPP decisions in a military theatre.

Lack of Military Awareness

Governmental inaction results in lack of military awareness, as armed forces reflect state policy. Few armed forces have established their own specialist personnel or conduct CPP training as the Convention mandates. Even the most fundamental lesson, of why CPP matters, must be restated. In a recent open access article for NATO, Blue Shield argued that in fact CPP should be a mission-relevant priority for the armed forces, rather than the unnecessary distraction it has often been seen as. The article cites a growing body of evidence demonstrating the links between heritage destruction and genocide; loss of community diversity post-conflict; and perhaps most relevantly for the armed forces, evidence indicating that heritage destruction can lead to increased violence.

“What distinguishes the bombing of the Samarra mosque from the rich array of cultural destruction that has plagued Iraq since 2003, is that it has been widely cited as a contributing factor to the sharp spike in the bloodletting that immediately erupted across Iraq and the associated reprisal attacks on other sites of cultural, historic and religious significance (Cockburn, 2006; Lischer, 2008). In other words, the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque is said to have set off a spiral of violence and further cultural and historical destruction. The ruins of the mosque came to symbolise Iraq’s alleged descent into civil war and have been repeatedly invoked as a turning point in relations between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq.” (Isakhan 2013: 237-8)

Training in incorporating CPP into missions remains rare, yet cultural heritage is becoming increasingly prominent in modern conflicts: sometimes, the very status as cultural heritage places sites at risk. ISIS is known for deliberately using heritage sites to avoid airstrikes. Any legal protection is waived once a force moves in, but those wishing to obey international law will still endeavour to respect the site as far as possible; however, few armed forces have any training or practice in operating in protected areas.

Although many armed forces are investigating how best to incorporate their responsibilities seriously, it remains a challenge to establish the importance of CPP in military minds.

International Stance

Although many countries have signed the Convention and its Protocols, few have paid more than surface attention to its requirements. The Regulations of Execution, for example, lay down clear guidance to apply the Convention at the national and international level, such as the Mission of Control. However, most requirements have never been carried out. Some have cited the changing character of war as rendering them invalid, but the Blue Shield feels that if that was once true, advancing technology has now moved it back into relevance again, yet the inertia created by decades of indifference is hard to change.

Stari Most Bridge, Mostar

International law also remains an area of challenge. Following the Balkans Wars in the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecuted several people for cultural heritage destruction, including the shelling of Dubrovnik World Heritage site, and the famous shelling of the Stari Most bridge at Mostar (now reconstructed by the international community and also a World Heritage site). Following this precedent, in 2016 the International Criminal Court tried its first heritage destruction case: Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi pled guilty as a co-perpetrator of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historic and religious buildings in Timbuktu, Mali. He was sentenced to 9 years imprisonment and directed to make 2.7 million euros in reparations.

The Mostar bridge destruction was initially determined to be “a war crime and a crime against humanity, because the destruction of the Old Bridge was accompanied by a “will to terrorize” the civilians who were now completely under siege.” However, demonstrating the complexity of assessing military necessity, in 2017 the Appeals Chamber overturned the decision and those tried were acquitted of the crimes.

The Destruction of Stari Most Bridge

“The Appeals Chamber finds, Judge Pocar dissenting, that since the Old Bridge was a military target at the time of the attack, and thus its destruction offered a definite military advantage, it cannot be considered, in and of itself, as wanton destruction not justified by military necessity. […] the Appeals Chamber finds that no reasonable trier of fact could have found that the HVO forces had the specific intent to discriminate or the specific intent to commit terror when it destroyed the Old Bridge.”

However, Judge Fausto Pocar strongly dissented, as he felt his colleagues had ignored the 1954 Convention, which stipulates that there can only be a waiver for destruction of cultural heritage “in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver”, "with military necessity being defined by the absence of alternative to the destruction.”

The place of cultural property in discussions of military necessity remains a challenge. There have been few national prosecutions for heritage destruction in armed conflict to broaden case law, although Iraq has included the heritage destruction perpetuated by ISIS in their trials.

Increasing Threat

These challenges are all set against a background of increasing threat to cultural property. In addition to the threats from direct targeting due to deliberate use in conflict, and the ever-present risk of collateral damage, both exacerbated by the increasing destructive power of modern weaponry, cultural heritage destruction is now a part of modern extremist identity wars, where it is targeted for no reason other than its links to communities marked for erasure (Bevan 2016). New research (Cunliffe and Curini 2018) has demonstrated that such attacks are as likely to gather support as they are to turn people against the perpetrators, increasing the risk further.

International humanitarian law sets out methods and standards to encourage the protection of humanity’s most important cultural heritage, but few have taken up the responsibility and put measures in place, and even fewer are trained to operate around such areas. Precision weaponry offers an unparalleled opportunity to protect cultural heritage in conflict, but only if armed forces know where cultural heritage can be found, and how to identify it.

Hard lessons were learned in the Second World War, lessons about the value of cultural property and how best to protect it. Those lessons were set down in international law, and today have been agreed as worthy goals by 133 states. As the cultural heritage destruction across the Middle East once again brings the topic to international attention, it is time to revisit those lessons, and to avoid past mistakes.


R. Bevan. 2016. The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. Reaktion Books.

E. Cunliffe and L Curini. 2018. ISIS and Heritage Destruction: A Sentiment Analysis. Antiquity 92 (364), 1096-1111.

B. Isakhan. 2013. Heritage destruction and spikes in violence: the Case of Iraq. In Kila, J. and Zeidler, J (eds). Cultural Heritage in the Crosshairs. Brill, 219-248.

O’Keefe, R., Péron, C., Musayev, T., & Ferrari, G. 2016. Protection of Cultural Property Military Manual. UNESCO and the International Institute of Humanitarian Law. Available at:

F Rosén. 2017. NATO AND CULTURAL PROPERTY. Embracing New Challenges in the Era of Identity Wars. Nordic Centre for Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict, and the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme.

J Toman. 1996. The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Legal Monographs and Treatises. Book 11. Santa Clara Law Digital Commons Law Library Collection. Now available online at:

H Walasek. 2015. Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage. Surrey: Ashgate

About the Authors

The authors of this post are part of The Blue Shield, an international NGO based in Newcastle University, England, working to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict and natural disaster. Its work is focussed primarily in the 1954 Hague Convention and Protocols but sits within the wider context of UN Security Council Resolutions and UNESCO’s strategic agenda. The Blue Shield sits at the intersection of the heritage community and the armed forces, bringing the expertise of one to support and enrich the decision making of the other.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.

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