The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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The ethics of cultural heritage

3.1 Applying Hague Convention Guidelines

The animation below gives an overview of the structure of the 1954 Hague Convention and the various methods through which it promotes respect for cultural heritage.

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Transcript: Video 3

NARRATOR
The 1954 Hague Convention explicitly prohibits the use of cultural property for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict and requires all States Parties to refrain from any act of hostility directed against such property.
The convention also requires States Parties to foster, within their armed forces, a spirit of respect for the cultural property of all peoples. A distinctive emblem is used as a symbol to identify and distinguish cultural property during armed conflict. In addition to this, the 1954 Hague Convention has two protocols.
The First Protocol, among other things, prevents the exportation of cultural property from an occupied territory during hostilities and requires cultural property that has been unlawfully exported to be returned to its original territory.
The Second Protocol, which was adopted in 1999, strengthens the convention and enhances the protection of cultural heritage in the following ways-- It elaborates further on certain terms such as military necessity and preparatory measures and establishes an enhanced level of protection for cultural property that is of the highest importance for humankind. The protocol also requires States Parties to criminalise the deliberate destruction of any cultural property.
Furthermore, the 1999 Second Protocol establishes a special fund for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. This provides emergency assistance to states in their efforts to take preparatory or emergency measures to protect their cultural property. Finally, the Second Protocol establishes a 12-member intergovernmental committee for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the protocol.
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As indicated in the above video, the Convention is complex, and sets out a number of different obligations for the states which have signed up to it. For instance, during peacetime, states are expected to make necessary preparations to ensure that the significant cultural heritage in their territory can be safeguarded. This includes creating inventories listing all significant heritage and plans for the emergency protection of that heritage.

The Convention also includes details of how states can register their heritage and how it should be marked. The lowest level of protection is offered to heritage of ‘great importance’ to the people and should be labelled with the Blue Shield (Figure 7). The middle level of protection is offered only to heritage of ‘very great importance’ to the people and should be labelled with three Blue Shield emblems arranged in a triangle. Finally, the highest level of protection is offered only to heritage which is of ‘greatest importance to humanity’ and should be labelled with the Blue Shield outlined in red (Figure 8).

This is a colour photo of the Blue Shield emblem. It shows the emblem attached to a stone wall and labelled in German. The logo takes the shape of a pointed shield divided by two intersecting diagonal lines, which create three triangles at the top of the shield and a single square at the bottom. The square and top triangle are light blue, while the two side triangles are white.
Figure 7 A Blue Shield emblem in Salzburg, Austria
This is a graphical representation, titled Regimes of value: Hague Convention & 2nd Protocol. A main central triangle has ‘Enhanced Protection’ at the top, ‘Special Protection’ located centrally, and ‘Protection’ at the bottom. There is a rectangle at the base of the triangle which reads ‘No conflict protection under HC1954, though some under other legal frameworks. On the right-hand side of the diagram are the Blue Shield International categories. On the left are the Value in the Convention/Second Protocol groupings.
Figure 8 Structure of the Hague Convention regulations called Blue Shield International

During wartime, the primary and main directive of the Convention is that state parties must refrain from directing any hostile attack towards cultural heritage protected by the treaty. It is impermissible to deliberately fire on, assault or damage cultural heritage. However, the Convention stipulates that such action may become permissible in cases of ‘imperative military necessity’. More specifically, some cultural sites or buildings may be directly targeted as long as:

  • That property has been made into a military objective. This means that the heritage is effectively contributing to the enemy’s military activities and attacking it would grant the attacking force a military advantage. For instance, if the enemy are using the building to store their weapons, or have stationed a sniper in a tower.
  • There is no feasible way of achieving the same military advantage without attacking the heritage.
  • The enemy have been warned that the attack is imminent, so that they have the opportunity to stop using the cultural heritage, if possible.
  • The attack has been authorised by an appropriately high-ranking commander, if circumstances permit. (This must be at least a Battalion Commander for heritage under regular protection, a Divisional Commander for heritage under Special Protection, and a Force Commander for heritage under Enhanced Protection.)

If hostile action is taken towards cultural heritage, in line with the above waiver, the Convention requires that everything feasible is done to limit harm to the heritage. This means methods of attack which aim to minimise damage must be chosen (such as using light weaponry instead of a heavy aerial bombardment). In addition, the attack should be called off if it appears likely to cause damage which is excessive in relation to the military advantage it would secure.

States are also forbidden from using cultural heritage in any way that is likely to expose it to destruction or damage. However, this obligation can also be waived in cases of imperative military necessity, as described above. For example, a military unit could occupy an ancient fort, provided it was the only feasible way of defending themselves from an enemy attack, and the foreseen damage to the fort would not be disproportionate to the advantage gained.

You can now test your understanding of the Hague Convention by considering the following scenarios.

Activity 3 Choosing the correct action

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Use the rules set out by the Hague Convention to decide whether the following actions would be permissible or impermissible.

  1. The soldiers in a military unit have been ordered to await reinforcements in an abandoned village. So that they are not sitting idly, they start shooting out the stained-glass windows of a nearby church for target practice.

a. 

impermissible


b. 

permissible


The correct answer is a.

Answer

Impermissible: this constitutes a direct attack on cultural heritage which has not been made into a legitimate military objective.

  1. An officer is put in charge of storing spare ammunition in an occupied town. There are several empty buildings among which it could be shared. But, for convenience, they decide to place all of the ammunition in one place – the basement of a library.

a. 

impermissible


b. 

permissible


The correct answer is a.

Answer

Impermissible: this is using a building containing cultural heritage in a way that attracts the risk of attack.

  1. The members of a squad are cut off from the rest of their battalion and their communication equipment has been damaged. They urgently need to get an important message to their commanding officer about an impending ambush. However, they are pinned down by a group of enemies shooting at them from the cover of an ancient market, which they know is a heritage site. They choose to engage the enemy, knowing that their own gunfire will cause some minor damage to the market.

a. 

impermissible


b. 

permissible


The correct answer is b.

Answer

Permissible: the military advantage to be gained from the attack (getting the message to their commanding officer) is proportional to the damage they foresee causing to the heritage site. Also, there is no feasible alternative to this course of action which would provide the same advantage. In addition, they could not have feasibly warned the enemy combatants, nor sought approval for their own attack from their commanding officer, so they are released from these duties.

  1. A small team of soldiers, led by a corporal, are tracking the movement of a convoy of enemy tanks. They gather intelligence that the enemy plan to use a historic stone bridge under Special Protection to cross a river and attack the civilians of a nearby town. Although they have a few hours until the enemy will reach the bridge, the corporal orders her team to demolish the bridge immediately in order to protect the townspeople.

a. 

impermissible


b. 

permissible


The correct answer is a.

Answer

Impermissible: although there is a military justification for destroying the bridge, the corporal neglected to get approval for the attack from the Division Commander, which would have been possible given the timescale. She also failed to consider alternative courses of action which could have protected the townspeople without destroying the bridge.

  1. An artillery unit has been tasked with destroying an enemy communications post located in some archaeological ruins. The Battalion Commander judges that eliminating the communications post would give them a great military advantage which could not be accomplished without capturing or destroying the enemy’s equipment. A warning is issued to the enemy soldiers that an attack is incoming, which is ignored. Then the Commander authorises a severe airstrike which is likely to destroy both the enemy communications post and the ruins in their entirety.

a. 

impermissible


b. 

permissible


The correct answer is a.

Answer

Impermissible: although the archaeological ruins have become a legitimate military objective, and the Battalion Commander remembered to issue a warning, in selecting the means of attack, they neglected to consider alternatives to an airstrike which would have inflicted lesser harm on the heritage. For instance, an assault with lighter weaponry could have succeeded in driving out the enemy and capturing the base without completely obliterating the ruins.

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