Destruction of cultural property is tried as a criminal case

This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.

A recent BBC News article stated,

“An Islamist militant has admitted destroying cultural sites in Timbuktu, Mali [in 2012], in a landmark trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).”

The article further indicates,blog_image-20160901

“It is the first time that the court in The Hague has tried a case of cultural destruction.

It is also the first time a suspected Islamist militant has stood trial at the ICC and the first time a suspect has pleaded guilty.”

More recent destruction of historic sites by the Islamic State (IS), along with profiting from antiquities trafficking, has acutely raised awareness of the interrelation of cultural property and international security. The tactics of IS, however, should not come as a surprise. The relationship between security of cultural property and international security—cultural security—has been evolving for two centuries and tightening over the last half-century.

Nazi plunder of artworks and destruction of historic cities during World War II compelled international law on the protection of cultural property during armed conflict in the form of the 1954 Hague Convention. Looting of antiquities throughout the Third World during the Cold War era inspired the establishment of international law on trafficking in cultural property in the form of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003, looting across nations of Arab spring, and IS’s exploitation of cultural heritage sites indicate the need for further international law on the interrelation of cultural property and security in the post-Cold War world.

The tactics of IS indicate that the protection of cultural property is no longer simply an art-for-art’s-sake concern. Yet, the United States and other nations that perceive IS as a threat to national security were not prepared for the financial and political ramifications of IS’s exploitation of cultural property. Nations with security interests, consequently, must now attempt to assess the risk under challenging circumstances. What is the financial value of the illicit trade in antiquities to IS? What is the strategic value of cultural heritage sites that IS is putting at risk?

But the real questions are, “What is the next form of exploitation of cultural property, and what are the ramifications for national security?” Law enforcement and intelligence services could have anticipated the current cultural exploitation by IS. By not planning for the risk, nations are left to react with limited effect. Learning from the oversight with IS, how might governments identify emerging threats in the realm of cultural security?

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