Warfare has always put cultural heritage in harm’s way, but the threat of today’s armed conflicts is without precedent in the modern era. The breakup of Syria into separate enclaves of influence and governance has put at risk the United Nations’s (UN) regime for protecting cultural heritage. The systematic and planned destruction of millennia-old antiquities by the Isil has made the task of the UN more difficult. It is time to consider concrete measures as to how to safeguard the artistic legacy of our ancient past.
Individual nations have struggled to find a way to stop Isil pillaging Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama announced his decision to send 50 Special Operations troops to Northern Syria as part of the broader campaign against Isil. The US effort focuses on advising and training Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces while Russia is aiming its military might in support of the Assad regime.
Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has described this strategy not as the beginning of an effort to restore Syria as a country, but as accepting that Syria is already a multi-enclave geographic entity comprising separate enclaves controlled by the Syrian government, Isil, al-Nusra Front and the Kurds.
Isil vigorously not only opposes the modern states of Iraq and Syria, the borders of which date back to a “Sykes-Picot conspiracy,” as Isil calls it, but it also doesn’t recognise nation states as such. Isil knows no national borders. It is a geographic entity of ideology and enforced obedience, whereas Patrick Cockburn quotes in his new book The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, “the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers…Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”
This complicates the international community’s response to Isil’s assault on the region’s cultural heritage.
The international community has effectively outsourced the protection of cultural heritage to nation-states. As Unesco declared in its 1970 Convention on cultural property, “[i]t is incumbent upon every State to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export” and that “the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organied both nationally and internationally among States working in close cooperation.”
But what if, as is increasingly obvious with regard to Iraq and Syria, nation states are incapable of protecting the cultural heritage within their borders? Sadly, the international community has very little recourse.
As Michael Glennon has written in his 2010 book, The Fog of Law: Pragmatism, Security, and International Law, “[t]he international legal system cannot compel a state to subscribe to a rule unless it consents to do so. It cannot adjudicate the application of a rule to a state unless the state has accepted the jurisdiction of the tribunal to apply the rule. It cannot enforce a rule against a state unless the state has consented to the rule’s enforcement.” States can defend themselves. On these terms, the international community struggled over crossing the borders of Syria and Iraq without the consent of those states.
The UN has worked to persuade Syria and Iraq to close borders to illicit trade in cultural heritage with the hope that such measures will prohibit such trade and the destruction to cultural heritage. But given the insecurity of Syrian and Iraqi state borders, it’s unlikely that such border controls can be enforced while hundreds of thousands of citizens flee the country for safety. And even if Iraq and Syria could enforce such restrictions, the measures would only result in keeping endangered cultural heritage within the state’s borders and in harm’s way.
The UN has also asked foreign nations to prohibit the importation of non-provenanced and likely illicitly excavated heritage items from crossing their borders. Instead, nations are encouraged to send confiscated items back to Syria and Iraq, again, most often into harm’s way.
To protect cultural heritage already improperly removed from Syria and Iraq, the international community, either state by state or by mandate from the UN, should encourage the creation of “safe havens” outside Syria and Iraq as temporary custodians for the safekeeping of endangered cultural property. To date, only France has proposed the creation of such safe havens.
Yet this is precisely what the UN does for the protection of refugees. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees pledges protection by ensuring that they will “not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution.” Instead, it helps them find “appropriate durable solutions to their plight, by repatriating them voluntarily to their homeland, integrating them in countries of asylum, or resettling them in third countries.” Such a protocol could also be considered the proper and moral strategy for threatened, looted and confiscated cultural heritage.
A third option is to send UN Blue Helmet forces into the region to protect cultural heritage, both portable and built heritage. Such forces, we should remember, comprise military forces contributed to UN operations by national armies. They remain, in the language of the UN, “first and foremost members of their own national armies” and are only seconded to work with the UN.
To date, Blue Helmet forces monitor disputed borders, observe peace processes in post-conflict areas, provide security across a conflict zone, assist in-country military personnel with training and support, assist ex-combatants in implementing peace agreements, and are deployed by the authority of the UN Security Council. Given the current difference of opinion between the US and Russia on governance in Syria, and given that the United States and Russia have veto power within the UN Security Council, it is difficult to imagine Blue Helmets being sent into the region to protect cultural heritage.
Deteriorating security in Syria and Iraq, and the tenacity and complexity of Isil, requires a multilateral response from the international community, and a rethinking of how it can overcome the inherent limitations and obstacles of the nation-state–based regime for the protection of cultural heritage.
If the heritage destroyed and under threat by Isil “belongs to all Syrians and all humanity,” as the Unesco director-general Irina Bokova has claimed it, the international community must find a way to overcome the limitations imposed on cultural heritage by the UN.
• James Cuno is the president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Reproduction of this article is courtesy of the author and YaleGlobal Online, where it was first published