Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Conventions and Unconventional Conflict

The ongoing destruction of historic sites in Syria and the targeting of religious monuments of northern Mali in July serve as poignant reminders of the vulnerability of cultural heritage in armed conflict. Since World War II, UNESCO has striven to establish conventions to protect cultural property. Have the conventions kept pace with the changing landscape of threats to cultural heritage?
Two landmark conventions offer points for consideration.
The 1954 Hague Convention and protocols specify the protection of cultural property during armed conflict. The United Nations established the convention in response to destruction in conflict between nations, but in the present, destruction of historic sites and looting of antiquities involve not only nations but also non-state actors such as insurgents and fundamentalist groups. Resisting insurgents, such as in Syria, and attacks by fundamentalist groups, such as in Timbuktu, Mali qualify, perhaps, as new circumstances in which to consider the protection of cultural property during political or armed conflict.
The 1970 UNESCO Convention specifies the prevention of trafficking in cultural property. While established in the climate of the Cold War to mitigate looting of cultural artifacts in emerging nations, the convention has created the means for nations to call for repatriation of cultural patrimony. In 2006, Greece and Italy succeed in recalling antiquities from prominent U.S. museums, in 2010, Peru secured the return of Inca artifacts from the Peabody Museum at Yale University, Nigeria continues a campaign to reclaim the Benin Bronzes, and Turkey has upped assertive efforts to repatriate cultural patrimony. In all cases, the returns involved, and seem primed to involve, controversy. If the trend in repatriation continues, will the role of repatriation in foreign policy risk tension in foreign relations?
Both conventions galvanized the significance of cultural property in foreign relations. How might the conventions adapt to current, and perhaps anticipate emerging, threats to world heritage, and what measures might in turn be necessary to forestall political conflict over possession and ownership of cultural property?

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