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Saving lives or saving stones? Two sides of the same coin?



When Daesh began blowing up ruins at the ancient city of Palmyra, Western news outlets couldn’t get enough of it. Pictures featuring heaps of rubble scattered amid lonely columns were splashed across the Internet, anchored by headlines intoning a veritable call to arms: “Culture Under Threat!” That call was answered by national leaders, academics, and international organizations, which made fervent appeals for the protection of these threatened cultural landmarks. One kind of justification for safeguarding cultural heritage has been particularly common.


“Attacks on human lives and on material culture are often inextricably linked,” wrote Robert Bevan. President Hollande of France asked: “Should we be concerned about the patrimony? What is more important, saving lives or saving stones? In reality, these two are inseparable.” And in a recent statement, UNESCO’s then Director-General Irina Bokova said: “Defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue – it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.”


These claims, and others like them, all make appeal to the same underlying principle: the idea that protection of lives and the preservation of cultural heritage are two sides of the same coin. Let’s call this the Inseparability Principle. If this principle is to offer a firm justification for the protection of cultural heritage, particularly at significant financial cost or risk to human life, then there are a number of questions that we need to ask about it. How precisely should we understand the Inseparability Principle? Is it true? And does it actually justify the kinds of actions taken in practice by those who invoke it?


There are at least four different ways of interpreting the Inseparability Principle. Note that most of these interpretations in fact begin with the claim that destruction of cultural heritage and killing are inseparably linked, and infer from that relationship that protection of cultural heritage and the saving of lives are inseparably linked.


The Evidential Reading

On the evidential reading of the Inseparability Principle, the destruction of cultural heritage is evidence that violence against people is imminent or underway. Of particular concern is the idea that the destruction of cultural heritage is evidence of possible genocide, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Indeed, the destruction of cultural heritage can be used as evidence of intent to commit genocide in international prosecution for genocide in bodies such as The Hague and the UN’s International Court of Justice.


To be sure, there are ample historical examples of the relationship between cultural heritage destruction and genocide. But notice that this is a relatively weak reading of the Inseparability Principle. Even if we assume that destruction of cultural heritage always accompanies or precedes genocide, if it has only evidential significance, then that does not mean that protecting cultural heritage will necessarily end up protecting people. That would be analogous to treating the symptom rather than the disease. If destruction of culture is merely evidence that genocide is beginning or underway, then we might think that should spur us to intervene in order to save people’s lives rather than waste time with cultural heritage protection. Now, one might argue that in the course of intervening to save cultural heritage we will end up saving lives, because the effort to do so will end up killing or detaining combatants who have designs beyond just the destruction of cultural heritage. We would thus be capitalizing on the evidential value of cultural heritage destruction. This seems plausible, but it does render the value of cultural heritage preservation merely instrumental, and does not offer a clear justification for a focus on preserving cultural heritage itself—only using the intervention as a convenient occasion to apprehend those who likely intend to threaten human lives.


The Causal Reading

The relative weakness of the evidential reading may lead us to prefer a stronger interpretation of the Inseparability Principle that posits a causal connection between the destruction of cultural heritage and the loss of life. According to the causal reading, the destruction of culture leads directly to the killing of people, and, potentially, genocide. This is the reading that seems to be supported by the oft-quoted words of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish concentration camp survivor who wrote the 1948 Genocide Convention: “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes…against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” We can be charitable about what precisely the causal mechanism is. Perhaps the destruction of cultural heritage promotes violence more generally; perhaps it contributes to the dehumanization of certain groups, facilitating their killing, operating in an analogous way to the use of hate speech. But whatever the best construal of the causal relationship, because cultural heritage destruction leads to killing according to this reading, it seems to offer a justification for intervention to safeguard cultural heritage that is lacking on the evidential reading. If we can stop the destruction of cultural heritage, we can ultimately save lives.


Again, proponents of this view might refer to historical evidence that would at least suggest such a causal relationship (and at the least illustrate a consistent conjunction between cultural heritage destruction and killing). And in contexts such as Lemkin’s example, where cultural destruction precedes the killing of people, this reason appears to offer a strong justification for intervention. However, even if we assume the causal reading is true, it’s not clear that it provides support for intervention to safeguard heritage in the context of ongoing war, which, notably, is often the context in which it has recently been invoked. Take, for instance, the recent calls for safeguarding material heritage in Syria. There have already been hundreds of thousands of deaths in armed conflict in Syria. So even if we grant that preventing destruction of culture might facilitate downstream prevention of deaths, that no longer seems relevant in contexts where mass killing is already underway. As in the evidential case, it seems that we should proceed directly to saving lives.


The Strategic Reading

The shortcomings of the evidential reading and the causal reading seem to be avoided on a further reading, which we can call the strategic reading. According to the strategic reading, it happens to be the case that protecting cultural heritage in fact aids in the saving of lives. On this view, we don’t need to posit an evidential or causal relationship between cultural destruction and killing, but only that there is a causal relationship between cultural preservation and the protection of human lives. This may be what Bokova has in mind when she says protecting cultural heritage “is a security imperative.” The strategic reading, like any other effective military strategy, requires empirical evidence, but assuming that cultural diplomacy of this kind is in fact effective, it does seem to offer justification for intervention to protect cultural heritage in contexts where this promises to save lives. For instance, cultural heritage preservation may help win cooperation from locals, garner international support, or cut off funds stemming from the illicit looting and sale of material heritage.


Curiously, though, the relationship between culture and human lives on the strategic reading is not quite in the spirit of many advocates for the importance of cultural heritage. The sentiment behind many of these appeals to protect culture seems to be that there is a deep significance to culture as a fundamental aspect of human existence. However, the strategic reading is not committed to such an ideal: it doesn’t need to posit anything other than a contingent relationship between protecting heritage and saving lives, such that doing so has strategic value. The relationship just needs to happen to be empirically true. It may well be that biodiversity conservation, for instance, has strategic value in this regard as well. So even if such a reading offers support for intervention, it doesn’t quite seem to be in the spirit of the appeals made by advocates for the protection of culture.


The Constitutive Reading

For a reading of the Inseparability Principle that seems to be in line with both the practical and idealistic commitments of its proponents, we need to turn to the constitutive reading. According to this reading, destruction of cultural heritage is, as Bevan urges, “part and parcel” of genocide itself. Now, it seems that the constitutive reading, if it holds, would in fact justify intervention to safeguard material culture. Moreover, it seems like it would ground a moral obligation to protect cultural heritage! After all, according to the constitutive reading, protecting cultural heritage just is an essential element of what preventing genocide involves.


However, the constitutive reading is also the most difficult to establish. This is because it is not just an empirical claim, but a claim about the nature of genocide. We can thus object to it on conceptual grounds. Consider that the destruction of material culture does not seem to be sufficient for genocide: destruction of culture heritage without killings is generally bad, and we might even call it “cultural genocide” as it is sometimes labeled, but without targeted killing, it does not seem to be the same phenomenon as genocide proper. Neither does destruction of material culture appear to be necessary for genocide: targeted killing seems to be enough. This is not to cast doubt on the role that cultural heritage destruction can and does play as a part of genocide, which has been well documented. It is only to question the strong claim that saving stones and saving lives is necessarily one and the same thing.


One avenue we might take to defend a weaker version of the constitutive reading is to observe that “cultural genocide,” even if not accompanied by actual killings, still constitutes the death of a people in a sense, as it aims to eradicate the cultural identity that makes a group of people who they are. So even if we suppose for the sake of argument that cultural destruction is not directly linked with the loss of individual lives, the use of the term genocide in “cultural genocide” is important and appropriate. A group can be destroyed even if no individual is killed. Now, it is worth being clear that, as an historical point, cultural genocide does always seem to involve the killing of people. However, the value of the weaker reading provided in this paragraph is that it is truly a conceptual point about the nature of group identity and its persistence, as opposed to an empirical or historical claim about the link between cultural destruction and killing.


However, this reading of the Inseparability Principle also dictates the means that will be appropriate for the protection of cultural heritage. If intervention is justified to prevent the eradication of cultural heritage in order to preserve a particular people’s continued existence as a cultural group, then the interests of those people will need to be front and center in whatever ensuing actions are taken. Failure to do so would undermine a justification for intervention that is purportedly for the sake of those very people.


To take one case where this justification and contemporary practice seem misaligned, consider the outsized focus on the ruins of Ancient Palmyra in Syria. Even if we grant a relationship between the destruction of culture and the loss of life, even a constitutive one, it can be difficult to see how the destruction of a particular site or object can carry the weight of strong claims about the inextricable link between cultural heritage and life more broadly. The focus on the unpopulated ruins of Ancient Palmyra is a case in point. Media attention has been preoccupied with the Arch of Triumph and the Temple of Bel (including some misguided digital replication projects that recreated the Arch of Triumph) to the utter exclusion of the Modern city of Palmyra (Tadmur), home to over 50,000 people. The discrepancy is exacerbated by the fact that Ancient Palmyra is unpopulated due to forced displacement: people actually lived at Ancient Palmyra as recently as the 1930s before French colonists removed them to the adjacent modern city. It is no wonder that many skeptics about the focus on material heritage have focused on this case in particular. Even if the inextricable link between heritage preservation and saving lives can be established in general, that relationship does not seem to serve as justification for the kind of exclusive focus on specific sites or objects that ultimately seem serve ulterior political aims disassociated from the interests of local people. Objects, places, and artifacts facilitate culture, but culture lives in the minds and practices of a people. Those urging the protection of cultural heritage and claiming its inextricable link with life would do well to keep that in mind.



About the Author


Erich Hatala Matthes is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy at Wellesley College. His research interests concern the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of cultural heritage, particularly with respect to art and the environment. This blog post is adapted from a portion of his paper, “‘Saving Lives or Saving Stones?’ The Ethics of Cultural Heritage Protection in War,” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (January 2018): 67-84.


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.