Safeguarding Cultural Property in the 1954 Hague Convention. All Possible Steps?

In 1954, following two World Wars and a number of civil wars which resulted in massive damage to museums, historic buildings, libraries, archives, and religious buildings (today collectively called cultural property), the international community came together to finalise the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (and its First Protocol). Today, it’s the most widely signed and important piece of international legislation protecting cultural property in war, with 133 state signatories. Reflecting advances in international law, it was updated, and revised, with a new Protocol in 1999.

In the Preamble to the Convention, signatory states confirm they are …

Of the opinion that such protection cannot be effective unless both national and international measures have been taken to organize it in time of peace;

[…] Determined to take all possible steps to protect cultural property;…

But given the extensive and ongoing cultural damage seen in conflicts around the world, are the Convention and its Protocols fit for purpose?

Through Safeguarding Cultural Property and the 1954 Hague Convention: All Possible Steps, Paul Fox and I (the editors) wanted to reconsider the practical effectiveness of the Convention’s safeguarding measures in the contemporary world. It places well-researched obligations on state armed forces, but the Convention also calls on states to prepare safeguarding measures in peacetime, and these have received far less attention.

  • Figure 1: the blue shield identifying protected cultural property of great importance on the Bundesverwaltungsgericht, Leipzig, Germany, one of Germany’s five federal supreme courts. © Emma Cunliffe
  • Figure 2: the blue shield marking sites of the greatest importance under enhanced protection, at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, part of the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, Georgia. © Paul Fox
  • Figure 3: the triple blue shield indicating cultural property of very great importance under special protection, at Zentraler Bergungsort (Central Refuge) Oberrieder Stollen (Barbarastollen Oberried). © Jörgens.mi/Wikipedia, Barabarastollen_1.jpg, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Figure 3

We consider ourselves to be ‘realists’, in as much as we work out of our experience ‘on the ground’. I have spent more than a decade working for NGOs monitoring heritage destruction, delivering heritage protection projects on the ground, and supporting training. This has inevitably focused my academic research on cultural heritage destruction and the ways it’s protected in peace and conflict. Paul Fox is a (now) retired historian of armed conflict and its representation in visual culture, rooted in a military career spanning 27 years.  We met working as the Secretariat for the international organisation the Blue Shield which protects heritage in conflict, positions we held as part of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace team at Newcastle University (and which I still hold today). We spent several years testing many of the 1954 Hague Convention’s ‘good practice’ ideas on NATO exercises (Cunliffe et al 2018; Blue Shield Training), exploring what armed forces need to protect cultural property and do their job. We found ourselves reconsidering the question I posed above– no longer, is the Convention fit for purpose, but have States truly taken “all possible steps”?

The contributors to this volume rose to our challenge admirably, offering insights from history, current practice, and law in peace and conflict. Academic research and practitioner insights from the armed forces and heritage professionals offer legal analyses alongside practical case studies, exploring the Hague Convention from new angles. Using a mix of case studies and theoretical explorations of new and existing methodologies, articles cover a broad timespan from World War II to today, with examples from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. How has it been implemented? What worked, and what didn’t? And most importantly, why not? How could it be improved? What are its weaknesses? Together, they have nuanced, deepened, and advanced our understanding of the Convention’s safeguarding regime, examining its construction, application, current applicability, future potential, and the many challenges this presents.

From the chapters presented, and supported by our own experience, it was clear that States Parties are decidedly lukewarm about putting in place any preparations for armed conflict. For example, whilst over 1100 sites are registered as World Heritage sites of Outstanding Universal value (a time consuming and expensive process), just 11 sites are registered globally for special protection, and 17 for enhanced protection. Some states think it will make them look weak at a time when they want to look strong; some think the money is wasted as the possibly of conflict is remote; some argue they simply don’t have the money when viewed against the many other competing priorities. Yet, it is equally clear that it is far too late to start such measures during conflict.

I co-authored two chapters, both reflecting my interests and background. The first, the opening chapter, explores the context of safeguarding with Dr Fox and correlates it to military practice, to develop understanding of how these peacetime safeguarding measures are – far from an expensive luxury – an essential underpinning of military practice during conflict. In my second chapter, I returned to my roots as a Syrian archaeologist. I was privileged to collaborate here with Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, the former Director General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria from 2012-2017, and one of the most dedicated heritage professionals I have ever known. We looked at the theoretical requirements safeguarding against the reality of the last decade of violence in Syria, a conflict notable for the extensive heritage destruction, bitter clashes – and the widespread human rights violations of ISIS. Syria’s heritage professionals are untrained in the Convention, yet the measures they implemented during the conflict have nonetheless reflected its requirements, demonstrating their continuing utility. Yet, we were nonetheless faced with the question of how much more could perhaps have been saved had preparations been completed in peacetime?

Our goal as editors is to promote wider understanding of the practical effectiveness of the Convention in the contemporary world by exploring the opportunities and constraints the 1954 Hague Convention offers today to protect cultural property in armed conflict. All contributors agree – any such protection must begin in peace. It is not a luxury, but a necessity.


This guest post was written by Emma Cunliffe, who is a Research Associate in the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University, UK, the Secretariat for the international NGO the Blue Shield, and the Secretary for UK Blue Shield.

Safeguarding Cultural Property and the 1954 Hague Convention: All Possible Steps
Edited by Emma Cunliffe and Paul Fox
9781783276660, hardcover, £39.00 / $64.35

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