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Destruction of Croatian monuments ruled a war crime

Yugoslav air force guilty of destroying historic monuments in Dubrovnik

It is 10 years since the bombing of the historic city of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav air force. Now members of the air force have been found guilty of the destruction of historic monuments by the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (TPIY).

The TPIY has included the destruction of monuments as one of 16 indictment charges for the attack on Dubrovnik, carried out between 1 October and 31 December 1991. Although the names of the accused have not yet been released, the decision made public on 1 March marks an appreciable advance in international law, confirming the violation of the Hague Convention of 1954 on the protection of cultural property in wartime.

“This constitutes an historic precedent. It is the first time since the judgments made at the tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo that a crime against cultural property has been sanctioned by an international tribunal,” said Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of Unesco.

Unesco played a tardy role in denouncing the destruction of the Croation heritage. It took many weeks of appeals before the organisation denounced the shelling and bombing of monuments. Dubrovnik has been on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites since 1979, and therefore benefitted from urgent funding for emergency restoration.

Under the new measures, any attack against cultural property, or its use or the use of its immediate surroundings as support for military action, their damage or destruction, renders the perpetrator liable to criminal proceedings. Theft and looting are included.

The recognition of these crimes is of course subject to an important variable—you cannot bring people to justice if they win the war.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Destruction of monuments ruled a war crime"