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No Strike Lists – From Use to Abuse?

Emma Cunliffe

The Imam Mosque (Shah Mosque), UNESCO World Heritage Site, Imam Square, Iran. By Ladsgroup, via Wikimedia commons

On the 4th of January 2020, President Trump wrote on Twitter that America would target: .... 52 Iranian sites […], some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture. The statement was met with widespread condemnation from the cultural heritage sector, with statements issued by most major US and international heritage organisations, as well as leading think tanks like Chatham House.[i] Both Downing Street and the Pentagon acknowledged such actions would be illegal and may constitute a war crime.

The proposed targeting of cultural sites has raised issues globally about cultural property protection (CPP) in armed conflict, in particular the vexed issue of No-Strike Lists - lists established in international law and used by military forces to identify restricted targets, but which many fear could be misused. Such lists lie at the heart of CPP in armed conflict, and Trump’s statement could threaten this foundation of the CPP system. When discussing President Trump’s threatened sites, an anonymous Facebook post asked:

“Are we familiar with what these cultural sites actually are? A statue of the late Ayatollah, for example, or an arch to the bold Revolutionary Guards are, I think, acceptable regime targets. Historical and/or archeological sites? Abso[…]lutely not.”

As numerous newspapers also rushed to ask which cultural sites were on his target list (assuming it existed), in many cases making similar value judgements to the anonymous poster about what might make an “acceptable” target, there are other, perhaps more important, questions to be asked about the underlying issues relating to the creation, management and use of site lists. How are they compiled? Which sites are protected under international law and what distinguishes between an “acceptable” target and a protected site - and who gets to decide? This blog will consider these issues by examining the use of no-strike lists for CPP, international law and practice relating to their creation and use, and the implications in this for the protection of cultural property in conflict today.

What is a No-Strike List?

For years, concerned heritage professionals have attempted to supply armed forces with the locations of sites that should be spared in conflict areas. These are known as ‘no-strike lists’. These lists are part of attempts to support their colleagues in affected areas, and intended to help their own state’s forces uphold good practice. Military no-strike lists also include hospitals, water treatment plants, schools, and other important civilian locations.

In World War II, the Roberts Commission provided prioritised lists of thousands of sites to Allied troops, hoping they would be protected. More recently, NGOs such as the Blue Shield, along with UNESCO, have supplied (much briefer) lists of important locations to armed forces in various countries, in an attempt to support armed forces who are trying to meet their legal obligations in good faith. No-strike lists were proven to help protect sites in Libya. In 2011, Colonel Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gadaffi placed several listening stations round the historic site of Ras al-Mergeb, hoping it would shield them, physically and by potentially deterring any attack. Having identified the site on a no-strike list, NATO modified its original choice of weapon in order to destroy the listening stations whilst protecting the site. Rather than a single strike that would simultaneously take out all the listening stations in the area, NATO chose to conduct multiple successive, more accurate strikes from a closer range, which was more expensive, riskier to NATO personnel due to the decreased distance from target, and risked some or all of the stations getting away. After a no-strike list was supplied for Yemen, there appeared to be a drop in strikes on historic sites playing no part in the conflict (though this may be coincidence).

Ras al-Mergeb, a Libyan fortified farm. 2011, © K von Habsburg.

There are many ways in which heritage is destroyed during armed conflict. Three are of most relevance here. First, heritage can be destroyed in deliberate attacks as part of extremist or ethnic violence: heritage has an intrinsic link to identity, and - as a physical manifestation of that identity - forms a target. Numerous examples of this were explored by Robert Bevan in his 2016 book, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, and today there are reports of cultural destruction linked to attacks on, for example, Muslims in Myanmar, the Yezidi in Syria and Iraq, Muslims in China and Armenians in Azerbaijan. Second, heritage can be destroyed when a site becomes a legitimate military objective and is targeted [ii], or as foreseen collateral damage as part of a strike on a different target. Finally, many sites are accidentally destroyed because armed forces were unaware of them.

Following the widespread destruction in World War I and II, and recognising the need for greater heritage protection, 56 states met at the Hague in 1954 to draft and agree the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Together with its First Protocol (1954) and Second Protocol (1999), this Convention remains the most detailed and widely signed, and is the cornerstone of CPP in armed conflict, placing obligations on the 133 signatory states to improve the protection of heritage sites.

No Strike Lists in International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

Cultural property protection also features in the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347. In fact, the need to protect cultural property in conflict is now such a widespread concept, it is regarded as Customary International Law. However, unlike the other international laws, which deal only with direct conflict, the 1954 Convention obligates the implementation of safeguarding measures in peacetime in order to provide maximum protection to sites (in article 3), and the 1999 Second Protocol (article 5) elaborates that these measures should include the production of inventories (i.e. the creation of heritage no-strike lists).

Although each law is clear in what it covers, when taken together the implementation becomes confusing. Because only one law specifies that states parties should make inventories of protected cultural property, there is a gap between what is protected in law and in practice. After all, if you don’t know what sites are in your Area of Operations that require protection, implementing that protection is very difficult, hence the requirement for inventories.

To explore this problem more fully, and understand its implications for site protection, we need to understand how protection is granted under IHL, and which sites receive it.

What goes on a list?

To begin, states have legislation to determine what cultural heritage that state is responsible for, whether in peace or conflict, based on some form of significance criteria. How that is determined is complicated, and the criteria states and international organisations use vary greatly. Some countries have a date-based threshold (where greater age is equated with greater value), whilst others require sites to meet certain significance criteria. For example, Sydney Opera House, Australia, is the youngest site in the world to be granted World Heritage status (an inscription granted to sites considered to have “outstanding universal value” and so one of the most important sites in the world): it is less than fifty years old. So what is protected in one country may not receive protection if an equivalent site exists elsewhere.

However, in order to receive protection during a conflict, a site must first meet the definition of cultural property in article 1 of the 1954 Hague Convention, broadly summed up as:

“movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above; museums, and centres containing monuments”. (Author’s emphasis).

It is first and foremost up to the states themselves to declare (in good faith) what cultural property in their territory they believe meets that definition, and it can be as new or old as they want (O’Keefe 1999; UNESCO Military Manual Second Edition, 2016:13).

Sites eligible for conflict protection by states (those “of great importance”) are usually considered to be a subset of the cultural property for which a state is more generally responsible in peacetime. This can still encompass thousands of (for example) churches, mosques, archaeological sites, historic buildings, museums and galleries and their collections, libraries, archives, underwater wrecks, and statues. (Although there have been many discussions about the deficiencies of the term, only cultural property is protected under the Convention. Natural or intangible heritage, for example, are excluded).

However, when a state creates a formal inventory of what is protected (as mandated in the 1954 Hague Convention) in order to share it amongst parties to the conflict, the inventory is often created by a single institution on behalf of the state – their nominated “competent authority” under the Convention – such as a government heritage body. These inventories frequently include only those sites that

  • meet the Convention’s definition of cultural property

  • fall under the remit of the state institution, and

  • meet the national definition(s) and historical/significance criteria.

Libraries and archives are also frequently excluded, as they can sit under the remit of – for example – departments of education. Thousands of artworks by famous masters sit in private collections, also outside the remit of state heritage management, and excluded from state-managed inventories.

Customary law indicates all religious buildings, museums and historic monuments are also protected irrespective of whether they meet the 1954 Hague Convention threshold “of great importance”. A modern church or mosque is as deserving of protection as a historic cathedral. Yet small local monuments or modern religious buildings, for example, are often excluded from inventories created to meet the inventory requirement of the 1954 Hague Convention, even though they are protected under other international laws (perhaps because in many countries the state has no responsibility (and therefore no information) about religious buildings unless there is a conservation requirement). In practice, then, the sites often cannot be avoided because no-one knows where they are.

Yet, when attacks aim to target the identity of a population, the sites most at risk are those strongly associated with that identity. In cases of national identity, the sites at risk usually, though not always, overlap strongly with protected cultural sites, but other identities can be targeted as well. As ISIS showed us, World Heritage sites make a prime target for extremist destruction, to a large extent because of their local, national and international symbolic associations. However, ISIS also targeted sites with great local significance, such as the historic mosques of Nebi Yunis and Al-Nuri in Mosul, or the shrine of Uqais al-Qarni in Raqqa, both completely demolished, as well as numerous small local shrines. Attacks that target a population, for example, will seek their sites of value, irrespective of their national importance, like the attacks on small local churches related to particular ethnic groups in a number of recent conflicts. My hometown has many historic and cultural sites, but one of the places most associated with local identity is the football stadium, which is highly unlikely to be listed as a site of great importance by the national heritage agency. Inclusion on an inventory can come down to who records it, and how, yet, someone, somewhere, has to make a list to identify sites in order for them to receive the best protection possible.

What if states don’t make an inventory?

Although states parties should identify their cultural property to any opponent, the 1954 Hague Convention is clear (article 4.5) that opponents are not exempt from the requirement to try not to damage cultural property if it is not identified, placing responsible armed forces in the difficult position of trying to identify cultural property that does not belong to them, and about which they may know nothing. A state party intending to obey IHL should endeavour to avoid cultural property, even if it has not been listed, and deliberately targeting it when it is not a military objective remains illegal. It was in this context that the no-strike lists created by concerned heritage professionals and referenced at the start of this blog were made.

There are many excellent staff in various armed forces – including the US Department of Defence - that I’ve had the privilege of working with when undertaking some of this data collection, but it’s hard work. There are language barriers, the amount of information available is patchy, and it’s certainly not collated or formatted in a consistent (and usable) way. By the time heritage professionals are involved, the conflict has usually reached a point that to ask the affected local people to identify their important cultural sites to a (presumably) hostile foreign power may compromise their safety and status with their own government by opening them up to accusations of foreign collaboration. Data sources have included archaeological reports, academic journals, Google Earth, and travel guides, to name a few. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to accurately locate and describe just a few hundred sites, never mind the thousands that are protected, meaning only the most important and best known get listed when no better data is available. (More on this is found here.)

However, the supply of such data by heritage professionals has raised some serious issues. In a recent tweet, Ron Rosenbaum suggested that archaeologists who knowingly select sites for destruction should be tried as complicit in war crimes. If one deliberately supplies such a list, then Rosenbaum might have a point, but the reality is far more complicated (as discussed nicely in this Counterpunch article). There’s no way of knowing right now where any data used by military forces (or on which President Trump may have been basing his threats) might have come from – a well-meaning archaeologist, a military officer with a tour book, or even some poor intern – or whether any data exists at all. We supply data to armed forces in good faith, expecting them to use it with the same intent, and data we have supplied is already used to assist armed forces with responsible decision-making in operations. But so far, data collection is in its infancy – far more work is needed, and the responsibility for it ultimately lies with states parties.

So why don’t all states make an inventory?

Data never dies. Information supplied today in good faith can be misused tomorrow: a fear that underpins much of the criticism against providing data for no-strike lists. Nor is this fear unjustified. Even without Trump’s threats, there are concerning historical examples of the deliberate targeting of heritage using lists of heritage sites. In World War II, the Royal Air Force deliberately bombed Lübeck, Cologne, and Rostock, historic German towns with (due to their lack of strategic importance) very limited anti-aircraft defence, as part of a campaign to bomb Germany into submission. The raids on Lubeck, for example, sent 234 bombers using a combination of explosive weapons, followed by incendiary bombs, burning more than half the city. The man who went on to become Air Marshall, Arthur Harris, was a strong believer that the widespread area bombing of civilian targets, and therefore civilians, would demoralise Germany and shorten the war and protect Allied lives (as seen in this interview with him, on record at the IWM, text excerpts here). “Cologne, Lubeck, Rostock—Those are only just the beginning. We cannot send a thousand bombers a time over Germany every time, as yet. But the time will come when we can do so. […] It may take a year. It may take two. But for the Nazis, the writing is on the wall. […] There are a lot of people who say that bombing can never win a war. Well, my answer to that is that it has never been tried yet, and we shall see.” The attack on Cologne was the first Air Force raid to use more than 1000 bombers (Operation Millennium). Despite multiple subsequent raids utilising around 1000 bombers, and correspondingly high destruction of property and loss of life, the war continued for three more years.

In retaliation, Germany planned devastating attacks on historic UK towns, intending to decimate them. Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary (27 April 1942): "I think it absolutely necessary, especially now, that we continue our acts of retaliation, and it is also in my opinion that one cannot achieve much by attacking armament centers; we need to copy the attacks of the Englishmen on cultural centers, especially those places that contain little anti-aircraft defences. […] Then, these Englishmen will be deterred from pursuing their terrorist efforts to frighten us.”. A member of the Aussenministerium, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm was quoted as saying: "We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baerdeker Guide." Several British cities of great historic value, but little military significance, were bombed, all with 3* in the Baerdeker Guidebook (the highest rating a property could get). However, there is little evidence that the historic nature of the targets in this, or any other similar attack, deterred anyone. Rather, it antagonised the population, then, and now.

Rhodes (1986) suggests that in World War II, a respected archaeologist was asked by the US government to help identify Japanese sites and cities of the greatest cultural value to be avoided in case the US bombed Japan. The archaeologist was then asked to comment on and rank the cultural value of five of those to the enemy. They were then told that, actually, the top two on the list would be bombed. Following a frantic meeting with the Secretary of Defense, the two urged for the most important city – Kyoto – to be spared, and atomic bombs were ultimately dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Nagasaki – Before and after the atomic bomb, 1945. By Fastfission, via Wikimedia Commons

President Trump’s statement has led to renewed fears that data collected in good faith could be misused in illegal destruction, and some are already calling for greater restrictions to availability of data, or not to collect the data at all.

However, when we look at the targets of recent illegal attacks (rather than accidental destruction through ignorance), the sites fall into two (very broad) types. The first are the famous public sites, for which data is easily available. Anyone who wants to can go online and download information about UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, and any tourist website will tell you what places are worth visiting. Some countries put their national heritage registers online, and some even make them downloadable. It’s considered best practice for museums to make themselves digitally accessible and to promote online content, and for sites to be digitised with information made open access. The data isn’t (yet) collated, standardised, or even verified, but for some countries, it’s there. If all you want is a high priority list, it can be pulled together quickly. Conversely, attacks on local heritage are usually conducted by troops who happen to be in the area, who don’t need a list to know what’s around them. There’s good evidence groups like ISIS didn’t need a repurposed list to conduct their campaign of destruction. Some of the sites ISIS targeted were high profile, but plenty were largely unknown in the west.

However, inclusion on a list would doubtless facilitate destruction, and would raise the possibility of damage simply to antagonise those who had hoped for its protection (ISIS destroyed Palmyra, for example, as much to antagonise a global audience calling for its protection as a Syrian one).

Where does this leave us?

In the era where precision-guided weapons can hit sites with an accuracy of metres, responsible decision-making under IHL requires good information about site locations (to say nothing of accidentally utilising unknown sites to “shield” equipment or supplies, or unwittingly putting a base on a buried archaeological site, or some other logistical decision that could have been avoided). Good data, and the will to act on it, can prevent extensive damage, and are the cornerstone of protection under international CPP law, and prosecution. The risks of accidental damage to cultural sites that aren’t on no-strike lists or similar are, overall, probably much greater than the risks of deliberate targeting of cultural sites that can only be identified from no-strike lists.

It is impossible for a responsible armed force operating under international law to protect cultural property without knowing what and where it is. Existing data is patchy and limited, but supplying it is fraught with problems and ethical dilemmas. The 1954 Hague Convention (elaborated in the 1999 Second Protocol) envisaged a system of inventories, each one created by the signatory nation in peacetime and shared between opponents if a conflict occurred. After all, why would a state bother to sign the Convention if it did not intend to respect its provisions? Today, few states have done so, and the highly damaging actions of a few leave us less likely than ever to be able to collect the data needed for the Convention to work. Ultimately though, the basic information is already out there if your intent is evil - we need to work on making it available to those whose intent is good, and that requires trust. Trump’s threats have done more than heavy damage to international relations: they have damaged the already shaky trust in the foundation from which international law operates.

“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” (1954 Hague Convention Preamble)

That “the protection of cultural property shall comprise the safeguarding of and respect for such property” (1954 Hague Convention Article 2).

And that “Preparatory measures taken in time of peace for the safeguarding of cultural property … shall include … the preparation of inventories” (1999 Second Protocol).

Without such inventories, we cannot hope to realise IHL in an effective manner. Somehow, then, we must find a way to do so that does not place them - or us - under threat.


[1] The Imam Mosque (Shah Mosque), UNESCO World Heritage Site, Imam Square, Iran. By Ladsgroup, via Wikimedia commons

[2] Ras al-Mergeb, a Libyan fortified farm. 2011, © K von Habsburg.

[3] Nagasaki – Before and after the atomic bomb, 1945. By Fastfission, via Wikimedia Commons


[i] As well as publishing their own statement, Blue Shield International has republished links to many of them on their social media:

[ii] It is prohibited to attack cultural or religious sites unless they become a military objective, “an object which by its nature, location, purpose or use makes an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization […] offers a definite military advantage. […] The test is twofold. To constitute a military objective, cultural property must not only make an effective contribution to military action by means of one or more of its nature, location, purpose or use but, in addition, the destruction, capture or neutralization of that property must, at the time of the attack, promise a definite military advantage to the attacking party. The definition also emphasizes […] that the contribution made to military action by the cultural property and the military advantage offered by its targeting must both be concrete, not just theoretical or speculative.” (UNESCO Military Manual Second Edition, 2016, P27). The attack must also meet the definition of imperative military necessity - there must be “no feasible alternative for obtaining a similar military advantage”. (UNESCO 2016 P38).


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

Rhodes, R. (1986). The making of the atomic bomb. NY: Simon & Schuster

About the author

Dr Emma Cunliffe is a Research Associate with the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University, where she specialises in researching the implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention and, in particular, heritage inventories in armed conflict in order to develop guidance and standards. She is also part of the Secretariat for Blue Shield International, an international NGO protecting cultural heritage in armed conflict, and the Secretary of the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield.

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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