The UK’s commitment to ratifying the primary international legislation concerning the protection of cultural property during war—the 1954 Hague Convention and its protocols of 1954 and 1999—was first made by the minister for heritage in May 2004, more than a year after the disastrous US- and UK-led invasion of Iraq resulted in the looting of the country’s museums and archaeological sites. The UK’s contribution to protecting cultural property in Afghanistan has been hardly more successful. It is arguably the most significant military power (and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad) not to have ratified the 1954 convention.
The protection of cultural property is, obviously, not a high priority when considered alongside the human tragedy of war. But it is important for social, economic, academic, political and, indeed, military reasons. Over the past decade, the UK’s armed forces, and many Nato allies, have begun to acknowledge this and to work with the Blue Shield (the voluntary organisation created to act as the “cultural equivalent of the Red Cross”) to protect cultural property during conflict. Lessons learned during the Second World War, when the Allies created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Sub-Commission (to be celebrated in George Clooney’s forthcoming blockbuster “The Monuments Men”), are slowly being remembered. Recent co-operation over lists of cultural property that is to be protected if possible has had some notable successes, particularly in Libya.
Despite constant pressure from the heritage community, however, we are no nearer ratification. The endlessly repeated mantra of politicians—that “we are committed to ratifying at the earliest opportunity”—has lost its hope, its intent and its credibility. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the 60th of the Hague Convention and the 15th of the second protocol—surely an opportunity not to be lost.