U.K. Government to sign Hague Convention in the fight against ISIL

The Government’s announcement in June that it is to bring forward legislation in Parliament to ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (otherwise known as the “Hague Convention”) marks an important step in the fight against ISIL and in curbing the flow of a significant source of its funding.

The Hague Convention is an international treaty which was signed on 14 May 1954 which requires its signatories to protect cultural property in the context of war.  The Convention was adopted by UNESCO in the aftermath of the Second World War which had witnessed the wide-scale destruction and systematic removal of priceless cultural artefacts by the Nazis from Eastern Europe and North Africa.  Today, over 115 countries have ratified the Convention including the United States which signed in 2009.

By providing exclusively for the protection of cultural heritage at risk from armed conflict, the Hague Convention was the first such treaty of its kind. Most notably, the Convention also gave birth to the principle of common heritage which is a tenet of international law which holds that defined territorial areas and elements of humanity’s common heritage (cultural and national) should be held in trust for future generations and be protected from exploitation by individual nation states.

The preamble and first Article (which provides a workable definition of “cultural property”) of the Convention are worthy of note. The text of the preamble is framed in particularly poignant terms and is designed to be a salutary reminder of the atrocities of the Second World War from which the Convention emerged. In no uncertain terms, the Convention begins:

“The High Contracting Parties: Recognizing that cultural property has suffered grave damage during recent armed conflicts and that, by reason of the developments in the technique of warfare, it is in increasing danger of destruction; Being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world; Considering that the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and that it is important that this heritage should receive international protection..”

The definition of “cultural property” under Article 1(1) is comprehensive and far-reaching covering, amongst other things, monuments of architecture, art or history, works of art, buildings, museums, libraries, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archeological interest. The abiding qualification is that the work must be “great importance to the cultural heritage of every people”. The Article is also careful to point out that it does not distinguish works on the grounds of religious or secular significance.

The full extent of damage to sites in the Middle East occupied by ISIL may not be clear for some time, but reports in recent months from Iraq point to the destruction of artefacts in the Mosul Museum and the bulldozing and looting of the historic sites of Nimrud and Hatra. More recent unverified reports suggest that ISIL has planted mines in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra threating destruction on unprecedented levels. What is clear, however, is that all these sites and artefacts fall squarely within the parameters imagined by the authors of the Convention.

A Second Protocol to the Convention adopted in 1999 created conditions under which criminal responsibility shall apply to the individual for serious violations with respect to the cultural property. The Second Protocol also elaborated on the provisions of the Convention relating to the safeguards and protections of cultural property, creating a further, higher level of protection to be adhered to by state parties.

The aims and objectives of the Convention are pursued by its signatories under the auspices of UNESCO, a specialised agency of the United Nations whose purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture. With the trade of looted cultural artefacts from historical sites and museums in Iraq and Syria, the work of UNESCO has assumed a vital imperative in the fight against terrorism financing and the Hague Convention alone does not fully address the emerging crisis in this region.

Owing to its inherent vulnerability and symbolic value, cultural heritage is at particular risk in times of armed conflict not only in terms of potential destruction but also in terms of trafficking – a problem not dealt with by the Hague Convention. Under the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (known as the “1970 Convention”), states are required to take action to monitor trade in cultural property, impose sanctions where required and to recover and return any cultural property imported illegally.

In fact, the 1970 Convention plays a pivotal role in UNESCO’s work in preventing the looting of artefacts which have fallen under the control of ISIL.  In May, UNESCO took steps to further bolster the 1970 Convention by publishing key operational guidelines for state parties to follow, by promoting the use of detailed inventories and by issuing model export certificates. Tracing looted artefacts is a complex task and these provisions may be able to offer a significant tool in curbing ISIL’s funding and help prevent priceless works of art from being removed from historical sites and museums. In recent months, UNESCO has received reports that numerous archeological sites have been systematically excavated by well-organised and often armed groups, reminiscent of Nazi activities in Egypt in the 1940s. It is feared that many pieces may have already made their way to London, New York or China where they may have been traded with private collections or unscrupulous dealers.

Ratifying the Hague Convention is likely to be a welcome move by the U.K. Government but it remains to be seen whether it also intends to ratify the 1970 Convention, arguably the vanguard of UNESCO’s efforts to prevent the illegal trade in priceless cultural property and a valuable instrument in tackling ISIL’s access to funding.

Published on July 28, 2015

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