As I write the US has just launched a Tomahawk missile strike against the Syrian airbase claimed to be responsible for Tuesday’s chemical weapon attack. Whether this action will have the deterrence effect Trump clearly hopes it will have, remains to be seen. But the use of chemical weapons, a uniquely awful weapon that yet again seems to have killed children, cannot be tolerated by any civilised person.
The use of lethal force in armed conflict is fraught with moral and legal complexity. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the initial UN deployment operated under a particularly weak mandate with soldiers only allowed to use lethal force if they themselves came under attack. This meant that soldiers who witnessed ethnic cleansing were legally powerless to intervene. 8,000 men and boys were massacred by Serbs at Srebenica as Dutch soldiers stood by, believing themselves unable to act.
But moral considerations did impel many to act. Lieutenant Colonel Bob Stewart, DSO, commander of the British battlegroup in Bosnia bravely and famously ripped up the rulebook and did intervene, saving countless lives.
So the emerging consensus that cultural property deserves military protection merits careful thought and discussion. It seems self-evident that there exists a class of cultural property that is so important to the identity of a community, that it deserves protection and if necessary the use of lethal force (or ‘all necessary means’ to use the military euphemism). The heart of the matter is what I call cultural genocide. This is the deliberate destruction of cultural artefacts that themselves bind and define a community. The annihilation of memory and history that results can be enough to fracture and destroy that community. Historic precedents abound such as the stripping of the altars during the English reformation 500 years ago, or the defacing of Paris’s public buildings, coats of arms, and statues by the French revolutionaries of 1789. Today the same strategy is employed by Daesh, against Yazidis, Shia and Christians in Iraq and Syria. However, the reality of protecting cultural objects is far from straightforward.
Where do you draw the line? What constitutes ‘important’ cultural property? Is Palmyra worth deploying troops to protect its stones, a military act that could lead to loss of life? What about the contemporary gallery down the road? The falcon breeding sanctuary? Or the digital archive of the national museum?
One man’s treasure may be another’s symbol of oppression. Every community will have their Cecil Rhodes, the businessman, politician and champion of empire, now the subject of campaigns to remove his name and image from university campuses and elsewhere. Or Edward Colston, the Bristol merchant, philanthropist, and slave trader whose name adorns the city but who has become an ‘embarrassment to Bristol’.
And what is proportional force that may lead to bloodshed, and loss of life for the sole purpose of protecting a monument? War is a messy business and there is always a real possibility of ‘collateral damage’. These are all issues that commanders in future conflicts may have to grapple with. As if combat isn’t already complex enough.
Last month the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill became law in the UK, designed to protect important cultural property in peacetime and during armed conflict. The consequences of this new law will be significant and include the setting up of a new military unit – a kind of modern day ‘Monuments Men.’ These soldiers will provide advice, training and support across the armed forces, as well as investigating and reporting cultural property issues. I commend the UK Government for introducing this law. However, we now need to hear from the politicians, military experts, commanders and affected communities.
As the world wakes up to the grave threats to cultural property, and as nations such as the UK show leadership by acting, we can see that cultural genocide is moving up the global agenda. Unesco, France and the Emirates recently launched ‘Aliph’, an international alliance for heritage protection. Governments and philanthropists have already pledged $75m. Thomas Kaplan, the American mining tycoon and philanthropist has given $1m. His gift is one of extraordinary generosity. The goal is to raise $100m. This will make a huge difference.
The international community now needs to face up to the reconstruction and restoration tasks that lie ahead. This will not be straightforward, not least because the cultural heritage community is itself divided over what constitutes appropriate restoration. Should the smashed-up monuments be left as testimony to the violence of the early 21C? A single building in Beirut’s Sodeco Square stands reproachfully to the horror of the 17 year-long Civil War, pockmarked with thousands of bullet holes. It serves as an abject warning to the young of the folly of sectarian violence; no winners emerged once the carnage was over. Should ancient monuments be restored to how they looked in 2016? In 1916? Or in 16BC? The technology now exists to effect astonishingly faithful restoration.
But the question that keeps me awake at night is this: the next time the destruction of cultural property rears its ugly head, what on earth is the world going to do about it?
I would welcome your views.