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Killing for culture: Responding to cultural heritage destruction as a security threat

Cultural heritage can be broadly conceived – movable and immovable property, the human and the natural landscape, tangible and intangible manifestations of community – but it is intimately linked to the memory and identity of individuals, communities, and nations. Such heritage has often fallen victim to the ravages of conflict, both civil and international. Its destruction has often provoked opprobrium and recrimination. Such destruction also produces insecurity.

Over the last decade, ontological security studies has emerged as a burgeoning sub-field within security studies and International Relations theory, with books, articles, and several special issues dedicated to exploring its themes, applications, and limits (Mitzen 2006; Steele 2008; Kinnvall and Mitzen 2017a; Kinnvall, Manners and Mitzen 2018). This can be seen as part of the broader development of critical security studies, dating back to the 1980s, which has contested the traditional strategic-military focus of security, seeking to question the multivalent meanings of ‘security’ and widening the scope of sectors and referent objects. There has been a move away from a purely statist focus in order to consider the role of individuals and sub-state groups.

The emergence of non-traditional security studies has highlighted that security issues and behaviours cannot be sufficiently explained by appealing to the doctrine of political realism alone. Building on the psychoanalytical work of Robert Laing (1960) and the sociological framework provided by Anthony Giddens (1991), scholars have explored the ‘security of being’ pursued by individuals, communities and states – as opposed to the more traditional ‘security of survival’. At its core, ‘Ontological Security’ encourages us to think about individuals, communities and states as agents seeking secure identities through repetitive and familiar routines and interactions with other agents. It is through these familiar behaviours and social interactions that agents develop ‘trust’ in their environment, and which help to confirm their self-identity as well as the identity they project to others. Disruptions to these familiar and predictable patterns of behaviour are potentially deeply traumatic, to both the individual agent (whether a single person or an entire community) as well as to other agents with whom they regularly interact. On the scale of international relations, such routines form the basis of normal state relations; in many cases, it is the degree of predictability of action that is more ‘securing’ than any real sense of trust between agents. States that do not conform to accepted levels of predictability within the state system are frequently branded ‘rogue’, and considered as security risks.

Disruptions to these predictable routines and behaviours can trigger ‘ontological crises’, whereby an agent’s own sense of identity, as well as their relationships with other agents, are damaged. For example, the 9/11 attacks on the United States posed a fundamental challenge to US self-identity as the global political-military hegemon; the US’s subsequent policies regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ‘war on terror’ more broadly, can all be interpreted as an attempt to reassert its self-identity as a superpower and the protector of the global liberal order.

In sum, thinking of individuals, communities, and even states as ontological security-seeking agents can provide compelling insights into what motivates a variety of behaviours. Of particular importance is the insight that stable ontological security aids durable social relations, while a disruption of ontological security can create conflict and violence at the micro- and macro-level (Kinnvall and Mitzen 2017b).

The destruction and misappropriation of cultural heritage, and the way it impacts upon human, national, and international security, must be considered as a significant issue for international security studies. Such destruction not only creates physical security challenges, but also creates significant ontological insecurity. The United Nations (UN) recognises that attacks on cultural heritage in war can function as a powerful instrument ‘to spread terror and hatred, fan conflict and impose violent extremist ideologies’; the UN also states that ‘the destruction of cultural heritage…erases the collective memories of a nation, destabilizes communities and threatens their cultural identity’ (General Assembly Resolution May 2015). Put simply, if there exist communities whose identity and collective memory (i.e. their ‘ontological security’) is deeply associated with certain sites, objects or practices (i.e. their ‘cultural heritage’), then any assault on this cultural heritage will threaten to destabilise the ontological security of that community.

The targeting of cultural property in Iraq and Syria since 2003 has garnered much international attention and triggered a growing political and academic interest in cultural heritage. UN Security Council Resolutions (e.g. 2199 and 2249) acknowledge that the ‘eradication of cultural heritage and trafficking of cultural property . . . constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ (2249). Rogue regimes and terrorist organisations use profits from illegal antiquities sales to enhance their operational capabilities: it has been estimated that since 2014, ISIL have generated $150-200 million from selling looted antiquities.

Moreover, a sense of shared history and values is a fundamental component of successful state-building. Consequently, destruction of cultural heritage not only destabilizes communities but also denies the positive role that heritage can play in cultivating post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation. Cultural heritage sites often contribute to sustainable economic redevelopment, helping to empower local stakeholders, increase stability, and reduce the demand for continuing external aid or intervention.

Attacks on cultural heritage are therefore a result of, and a threat to, regional and international security. Through violating international law, victimising communities, financing terrorist activities, and eroding state-building assets, the destruction of cultural heritage is a pressing concern for international security and global justice. Iraq and Syria are notable but not isolated cases and the need to protect cultural heritage globally, now and in the future, will only become more urgent as actors become increasingly aware of its ideological and financial value. The problems become even more acute if we include natural landscapes and resources into definitions of cultural heritage. In such cases, communities may find themselves denuded of their cultural heritage merely as a result of aggressive mining, logging, or tourism policies pursued by an unsympathetic government. In other words, the presence of armed conflict per se is not a requisite for the destruction of cultural heritage.

The destruction and protection of cultural heritage has hardly begun to be developed within international security studies. There have been few attempts to assess the impact of heritage destruction on security (see also Nemeth 2007; Vlasic and Turku 2016), nor is there an effective or ethically coherent normative framework for the protection of cultural heritage. At the international level, efforts remain focused on prosecuting those engaged in illegal trafficking, but this does little to prevent destruction at the source. NGOs and IGOs – Blue Shield International or the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) – have very limited capacity to intervene in conflict theatres, thus severely curtailing their ability to protect heritage sites and artefacts.

I believe that cultural heritage has significant value (historical, artistic, educational, etc.) quite apart from any security function it may possess. Nonetheless, by examining cultural heritage through the lens of security, I argue that its value may be seen to be considerably increased. Or, put another way, that the importance and benefits of protecting cultural heritage have thus far been radically underestimated.

However, if one accepts that the destruction of cultural heritage produces ontological and physical insecurity, does it necessarily follow that the protection of cultural heritage will enhance ontological and physical security? This is a difficult question to answer, mainly because the long-term effects of protecting cultural heritage – especially in the realms of security – remains poorly understood. Let us assume for a moment that protecting cultural heritage may indeed enhance both ontological and physical security in conflict zones, and that preserving cultural heritage provides additional benefits separate to security. To what lengths, then, should the international community go in protecting cultural heritage, and how should it deploy its resources?

My own research has begun to consider how to construct a robust normative framework for the protection of cultural heritage as a means to enhance ontological security, international security, and global justice. Such a framework might seek to exercise ‘soft power’ techniques: to strengthen modes of reassurance and cooperation, such as providing resources and promoting education and community engagement in regions of insecurity. However, it might also incorporate hard power techniques. Here, three pre-existing literatures may provide guidance: (i) just war thought, including the nascent literature exploring jus ad vim (justified use of force short of war); (ii) the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle; (iii) pre-existing international law on the protection of cultural heritage.

The consideration of armed intervention to protect cultural heritage raises numerous political, legal, ethical, and strategic questions and objections. Who decides what constitutes cultural heritage and who decides its value? Should we treat cultural property as a particular or a universal good? UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites suggests a consensus, but critics argue that it represents predominantly Western values and aesthetics, or that it is dependent on the vagueries of individual state interests (Askew 2010; Silverman 2011; van der Auwera 2013). If the value of cultural heritage is contextual and changeable, is the preservation of cultural heritage always a ‘good’ thing? How do we balance the socially constructed definition and value of cultural heritage, on the one hand, with the meaning and value of security, on the other? How do the costs (material and moral) of military intervention compare to the benefits of protecting cultural heritage? When physical and ontological security may suggest conflicting outcomes, what do we mean by a ‘good’ security outcome?

Fortunately, there are a range of possible approaches to constructing a normative framework for the protection of cultural heritage in the international arena. The argument that protecting cultural heritage can actively enhance the security of individuals appears to offer a promising consequentialist argument to justify limited intervention. Consequentialism might also highlight that the protection of cultural heritage can provide various multi-generational benefits, which, when weighed against the negative costs of limited military action, still provides an overall positive outcome. Arguably, as the treasured heritage of an entire nation or even humanity, the ‘good’ of preserving cultural heritage exceeds the ‘good’ of preserving the lives of individual or multiple persons. Furthermore, if we accept that certain cultural heritage is essential to the ontological security of certain groups – that is, it enables them to preserve their group identity and cohesion and, by extension, maintains elements of their physical security – then such arguments only gain moral force.

Arguments that prioritise the preservation of heritage (cultural or natural) over the safety of potentially ‘innocent’ human beings will always be controversial within moral philosophy; yet they cannot be easily dismissed in the ‘real world’. It is a truth that many individuals are willing to kill and/or to die in order to protect symbols of their history, their identity, and their beliefs. How far would individuals and individual states be prepared to go in order to avert the targeted destruction of the Kaaba, the Temple Mount, the Statue of Liberty, the Kremlin, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Forbidden City? That innocents may be harmed in order to protect these sites does, of course, pose a challenge to any consequentialist defence. But, in reality, there is little difference here to standard accounts of just war. Historically, most just war theories have prioritised the defence of justice over the absolute preservation of innocent lives, arguing that this promotes a 'greater good'. Furthermore, ‘lesser evil’ and ‘double-effect’ arguments have now been converted into algorithms designed to calculate whether missile or drone strikes should or should not be approved (Crawford 2013). All such justifications and calculations hinge upon subjective assessments of value: how much value one attaches to the thing being defended versus the thing being harmed.

If the destruction of cultural heritage is capable of producing ontological and physical security crises, then it seems plausible that some cosmopolitan arguments concentrating on individual rights could also be marshalled to justify armed intervention for the sake of heritage protection. Cécile Fabre, for example, argues that ‘non-political groups, as well as individuals themselves, can have the right to go to war’, and that ‘the right to wage a war in defence of one’s human rights should also be conceived of as a human right’ (Fabre 2008). If cultural heritage is intrinsic to the ontological security of a group, then its protection is arguably a defence of that group’s human rights. Moreover, if we take Fabre’s cosmopolitanism to its logical end, it would seem that most communities have the capacity to be considered as legitimate actors, possessing legitimate authority, and empowered to engage in a variety of self-defensive measures to protect their own cultural heritage.

Even a materialist approach might highlight the potential benefits of armed intervention for the sake of protecting cultural heritage. Developed economies currently set the value of a human life anywhere between $2-10 million. The value of illegally looted antiquities can exceed this considerably, while the potential tourist revenue generated by heritage sites can far exceed it. For example, in 2010 the Syrian tourist industry was worth $8.5 billion, much of it owing to the country’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Since the outbreak of war in 2011, Syria’s tourist revenue has declined by around 98 percent; or, put bluntly, by the ‘value’ of 4,000 human lives (according to a rough average economic costing of Western governments). With the significant destruction of sites such as Palmyra, it is reasonable to assume that Syria will struggle to regain this level of tourist revenue. It is certain that massive levels of funding will be required to initiate the reconstruction process. Based on purely materialist calculations, limited armed intervention to protect specific cultural sites could prove economically cost efficient. Moreover, in terms of security, the ability of post-conflict zones to recover economically is absolutely central to long-term stability; heritage-based tourism can play a vital role in post-conflict economic reconstruction, providing jobs and focal points for community projects (as well as opportunities for reconciliation between previously opposed groups) that can contribute to positive physical and ontological security outcomes.

A political realist might concentrate on the role that attacks on cultural heritage play in embedding terrorist organisations and exacerbating mass migration from conflict regions, thus contributing to insecurity in other states. The deployment of small-scale military operations to protect cultural heritage may help to limit the expansion and intensification of violence, reduce funding to terrorists, increase the likelihood of post-conflict reconciliation and economic growth, improve long-term local security, and reduce the costs of reconstruction. If so, it would be in the interests of leading states to prevent attacks on cultural heritage.

All of the above suggestions fail to address fully the problem of proportionality. What degree of force can be justified in defence of cultural heritage? Many will baulk at the suggestion that defending cultural heritage – in whatever form – can warrant lethal force. In contrast, I contend that, under certain circumstances, the protection of cultural heritage can indeed warrant lethal force. At present, this largely remains an intuitive response, and it will be the purpose of this ongoing project to provide a coherent and robust defence of this position. The approaches sketched out above provide some avenues of thought, but the role of cultural heritage as an ontological and physical security provider has the potential to endow it with a level of value that can justify lethal force in its defence. When including natural heritage into the cultural heritage category, a move away from anthropocentrism may also provide additional justifications for defensive force in order to protect areas of ecological importance. The modern international law of armed conflict is based on an acceptance that lethal force is legitimate in defence of state sovereignty and territory, but the terms ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territory’ are, in many senses, synonyms of ‘identity’ and ‘property’. What is cultural heritage if not an amalgamation of identity and property? Why should its defence be treated as any less important than the defence of homes, farmland, or military installations? Lethal force should perhaps never be the intended consequence of the defence of cultural heritage, but as an unintended (albeit not unforeseen) consequence, my intuition is that it is permissible.

Clearly, these initial suggestions raise numerous possible objections. But they also, hopefully, highlight the possible avenues for approaching the destruction and protection of cultural heritage from the perspective of a multi-sum security framework. Cultural heritage – fundamental to the identity and future prosperity of communities of all stripes – constitutes a serious but important challenge for international security studies, just war studies, and beyond. Only by engaging with a range of ideas can we hope to produce compelling answers and, ultimately, effective action.


M. Askew, ‘The Magic List of Global Status: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Agendas of States’, in Heritage and Globalisation, edited by S. Labadi and C. Long (New York: Routledge, 2010), 19-44.

NC. Crawford, ‘Bugsplat: US Standing Rules of Engagement, International Humanitarian Law, Military Necessity, and Noncombatant Immunity’, in Just War: Authority, Tradition, and Practice, edited by Anthony F. Lang Jr., Cian O’Driscoll, and John Williams (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 231-49.

C Fabre, ‘Cosmopolitanism, Just War Theory and Legitimate Authority’, International Affairs 84 (5) (2008): 963-76, at 968, 969.

A. Giddens. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford University Press, 1991.

C. Kinnvall and J. Mitzen (eds), Special Issue on Ontological Security: Cooperation and Conflict 52 (1) (2017)

C. Kinnvall, I. Manners, and J. Mitzen (eds), Special Issue on Ontological (in)Security in the European Union: European Security 27 (3) (2018).

C. Kinnvall and J. Mitzen. Introduction: Ontological securities in world politics. Cooperation and Conflict 52 (1): (2017): 3-11.

RD. Laing. The Divideed Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Tavistock Publications, 1960.

J. Mitzen. Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma. European Journal of International Relations 12 (3) (2006): 341-70.

E. Nemeth, ‘Cultural Security: The Evolving Role of Art in International Security’, Terrorism and Political Violence 19 (1) (2007): 19-42.

H. Silverman, ‘Border Wars: the ongoing temple dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and UNESCO’s world heritage list’, International Journal of Cultural Heritage 17 (1) (2011): 1-21.

BJ. Steele. Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State. Routledge, 2008

S. van der Auwera, ‘UNESCO and the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict’, International Journal of Cultural Policy 19 (1) (2013): 1-19.

MV. Vlasic and H Turku, ‘Protecting Cultural Heritage as a Means for International Peace, Security and Stability: The Case of ISIS, Syria and Iraq’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 49 (2016): 1371-1416.

About the author

Rory Cox is a Lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews (UK). His research examines violence, the ethics of war, and comparative international history, from antiquity to the present day.

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.