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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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3 The Hague Convention (1954)

Cultural heritage often plays an important role in armed conflicts. Heritage buildings can be used as fortresses or observation points. Heritage can also be looted as spoils of war or deliberately destroyed in acts of iconoclasm or cultural cleansing.

Yet there have been calls to constrain the treatment of cultural heritage in war. For instance, Sun Tzu in the 6th century BCE argued that cultural heritage should not be punitively destroyed in conflicts. More recently, rules regarding the treatment of cultural heritage in war have begun to be codified into law. Perhaps the most significant international treaty is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), which can be shortened to the 1954 Hague Convention.

The Convention was developed after the Second World War. In the war a huge amount of cultural property was destroyed and stolen. From the Nazis’ organised looting of European art, to their bombing of historic landmarks, such as England’s Coventry Cathedral (Figure 5). The Allied forces were also responsible for many serious acts of cultural devastation, including bombing Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy, and destroying the Frauenkirche (as well as 90% of the other city-centre buildings) during the air raids on Dresden in Germany (Figure 6).

This is a black-and-white photograph taken in nineteen forty. It shows the ruins of Coventry Cathedral from the inside. The entire roof is missing and all of its windows have been broken. Piles of rubble have been moved to the sides of the space by the walls. In the centre, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is walking towards the camera, guided by a policeman and a vicar, with several other suit-wearing men following behind him.
Figure 5 Prime Minister Winston Churchill walking through the ruined nave of Coventry Cathedral in England. It was severely damaged in the Coventry Blitz of 14–15 November 1940
This is a black-and-white photograph taken shortly after the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War. It shows a statue of Martin Luther, made of black marble, standing on a stone plinth. Behind the statue there is a huge pile of rubble and two unsupported sections of wall belonging to the now-destroyed Frauenkirche.
Figure 6 The destroyed Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany

The Hague Convention was drafted by 56 states with the aim of preventing the similar mistreatment and destruction of heritage from happening again. The Convention covers both movable heritage, such as books, paintings, statues and archaeological objects, and immovable heritage, such as cathedrals, temples, museums and ruins. It lays out a series of constraints which forbid the theft of cultural property and limit the circumstances under which it may be used or attacked for military purposes.

The following video clip from UNESCO outlines their understanding of the Convention’s significance. It also outlines the scope of the legislation by offering examples of the kinds of objects and sites it covers.

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In the next section, you will learn more about the specific rules set out in the 1954 Hague Convention.