By: Cara Elzie (she/her/hers)
American Red Cross Northwest Region
International Humanitarian Law Youth Action Campaign (Red Cross)
For more information about IHL visit: https://www.redcross.org/humanityinwar/international-humanitarian-law-youth-action-campaign.html
This work was produced and originally published as part of an American Red Cross International Humanitarian Law essay and art competition. Cara Elzie is a volunteer in the Northwest Region and was awarded first place in the undergraduate category for the article below. Enjoy!
When cultural property is lost, this loss is felt by all. Items of great cultural significance act as a portal. A portal to a different time or place. Sometimes, it can seem like a portal to a different world. The loss of cultural property is not just a loss for those of us alive today, but for future generations as well. These items, once lost, can never be replaced. These tangible portals once gone are gone forever.
What is cultural property? Cultural property is not a random designation, and not every object in a country is considered cultural property. According to UNESCO, which has universal acceptance, to meet the requirements of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Implementation) Act, the object in question must “be of great cultural, historical and scientific importance that belongs to the statutorily-protected cultural heritage of a country” (Ministry of Education, 2015). Cultural property can be split into two categories: moveable property, like artwork and manuscripts, and immoveable property, like land monuments and natural wonders.
Cultural property is a part of humanity. Humanity is not just the sum total of every physical human on Earth. Humanity is shaped by heritage and culture. Each of us is influenced by the environment we experience as we live. When we lose access to cultural property, we lose access to a part of what made us who we are. As Dr. Ochab explained in a 2021 Forbes article that touched on the destruction of churches in Iraq, “while these buildings can be rebuilt, these communities have lost the heritage that these buildings preserved, [and] passed down through generations” (Ochab, 2021).
Despite many arguments to the contrary, the loss of cultural property is not simply a loss of objects and buildings. It is not adequate to explain it as a loss of property–it is the loss of history itself. One of the most famous examples of cultural property being destroyed was the destruction of Buddhas in Bamiyan. This occurred in 2001, shortly after the Taliban ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries in Afghanistan (Ahmad et al., 2022). When this announcement was made, various counties, including the United States, attempted to buy the statues from the Taliban in an attempt to preserve them (Ahmad et al., 2022). The countries making these offers understood that the enrichment these objects provided was felt worldwide, not just in Afghanistan.
The issue of protecting cultural property is sometimes dismissed as being trivial in comparison to the loss of human life. However, this sets up a false choice. It is not just possible but necessary to protect both human life and cultural property to preserve humanity. As one article explains, “cultural property protection in conflict is often neglected or brushed aside as people argue that the lives of individuals in war zones are far more important than old buildings, pots, and books. However, it is not a question of prioritizing. We must not dismiss cultural property protection in conflicts as secondary to humanitarian tragedy, but as part of the effort to save humanity” (The fate of cultural property in wartime: Why it matters and what should be done).
Similarly, the benefits of cultural property are also felt by all. Cultural property enhances a community’s connection to its culture. When members of a community have a strong sense of cultural identity, their general well-being is improved. There is evidence that engaging in culturally meaningful activities improves psychological health and gives individuals a sense of social significance (Kim et al., 2015). This positive change has been evidenced in children’s health as well (Connectedness – culture).
The loss of cultural practices has been linked to reduced social cohesion and mental health issues (Climate change and the loss of Cultural Heritage). This is especially devastating for indigenous people who are often hit hardest, and more frequently, by the loss of cultural property. This loss can lead to further displacement in their home countries. This became such an issue that in 2007 a specific UN declaration, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was created specifically to affirm the rights of Indigenous groups’ right to express their cultural traditions(Watkins et al., 2017). At its most extreme, the systematic removal and destruction of cultural property can lead to whole people groups being decimated and erased from history. This is unacceptable not only for moral and ethical reasons but also because “the heritage of one civilization is the heritage of the entire world” (The fate of cultural property in wartime: Why it matters and what should be done).
While preserving cultural property is important in its own right, this issue should also be taken seriously in the context of greater international conflicts. Destruction, or the attempted destruction, of cultural property is considered a risk factor for impending atrocity crimes and genocide (Ochab, 2021). The UN Framework for Analysis of Atrocity Crimes lists destruction of cultural property as risk factor number seven and risk factor number nine for atrocity crimes and genocide, respectively (Ochab, 2021).
Preserving cultural property can have far-reaching ramifications for both the present and the future. When we lose cultural property, we lose the cultural connection those objects provided and the connection to those who have gone before us. Interacting with historical artifacts allows us to gain an appreciation for, and understanding of, history. These objects act as a living memory that connects us to the past. This connection with the past allows us to make sense of the present, which in turn, gives us the knowledge and understanding needed to move into the future. Without cultural property, we endanger the quality of humanity’s future.
International humanitarian law only applies to international conflict, however, preserving cultural property is important not only in the midst of wars and unrest, but also in peace time. Although this issue is most widespread during times of war, cultural property is always under attack. Today, we see cultural property under attack in countries all over the world. In the Middle East, we see items, like the aforementioned Buddha statues, being destroyed for religious reasons. In the United States, we see political divides that have resulted in historical statues being destroyed (Bikales, 2020). Natural disasters can also result in the loss of irreplaceable cultural objects (Heritage at risk:natural disasters- earthquakes).
Protecting cultural property creates a more diverse and interconnected world than we could ever hope to achieve without these cultural objects. The heritage of all mankind must be protected to ensure that the future of all mankind will be respected. Imagine a world without the Pyramids of Giza or without the Grand Canyon; a world without the Mona Lisa and the Declaration of Independence. When we lose cultural property, we lose a piece of humanity.
Ahmad, J., Weitz, R., & Katulis, B. (2022, January 26). The death of the buddhas of bamiyan. Middle East Institute. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.mei.edu/publications/death-buddhas-bamiyan
Bikales, R. S. and J. (2020, June 17). A list of the statues across the US toppled, vandalized or officially removed amid protests. TheHill. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/502492-list-statues-toppled-vandalized-removed-protests
Climate change and the loss of Cultural Heritage. UNA. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://unausa.org/climate-change-and-the-loss-of-cultural-heritage/
Connectedness – culture. Head to Health. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.headtohealth.gov.au/meaningful-life/connectedness/culture
The fate of cultural property in wartime: Why it matters and what should be done. Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/ethics_online/0085
Heritage at risk: natural disasters- earthquakes. CyArk. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://cyark.org/news/heritage-at-risknatural-disasters-earthquakes
Kim, J., Kim, M., Han, A., & Chin, S. (2015, June 16). The importance of culturally meaningful activity for health benefits among older Korean immigrant living in the United States. International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4471217/
Ministry of Education, C. and S. (2015, October 29). What is cultural property? Cultural goods | Information and Heritage Inspectorate. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://english.inspectie-oe.nl/cultural-goods/what-is-cultural-property
Ochab, D. E. U. (2021, July 4). Why we should be concerned about the destruction of cultural heritage. Forbes. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2021/07/03/why-we-should-to-be-concerned-about-the-destruction-of-cultural-heritage/?sh=794647cf31c5
Watkins / 1 Sep 2016, Moses, Y., Gusterson, H., & Coutros, P. (2017, February 8). The problem with Heritage. SAPIENS. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.sapiens.org/column/the-dirt/problem-cultural-heritage/