Reposted from Forbes
Recent times have seen atrocities committed in many regions. While damage to person and property are often the focus of headlines, there is an element of these crimes that is often neglected, and neglected at a high price: the destruction of cultural heritage. To demonstrate this in an example, the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh resulted in the destruction of churches and places of worship for minority religious groups across Iraq. While these buildings can be rebuilt, these communities have lost the heritage that these buildings preserved, passed down through generations. The same example is reflected in the crimes perpetrated against Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, which have also resulted in the destruction of mosques, causing the loss of links to generations past. The destruction of cultural heritage is an important, and often overlooked, element of the atrocity crimes. Indeed, the destruction of cultural heritage often means more to these communities than the destruction of the physical churches and places of worship.
The destruction of cultural heritage may take various forms, both through the destruction of the tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage includes “monuments, religious or secular; buildings or groups of buildings which are of cultural value, either because of their architecture, homogeneity or place in the landscape, or because of their content, in the case of museums, archives or libraries; sites and movable objects (such as works of art, sculpture, manuscripts, books); underwater cultural heritage, including shipwrecks and underwater archaeological site.” Intangible heritage includes “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals, recognize as part of their cultural heritage, together with the instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces associated therewith.” The intangible heritage will be ultimately destroyed as the people that make up targeted communities are displaced or killed.
The destruction of cultural heritage is often a part of the atrocities, but too often is given little attention. However, as the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to the International Criminal Court (ICC) explains in its recently published policy briefing, the destruction of cultural heritage is an element of international crimes that requires a comprehensive response, including investigations and prosecutions. As the briefing explains “crimes against and affecting cultural heritage are a pervasive feature of the atrocities within the [ICC]’s jurisdiction. Willful attacks on cultural heritage constitute a centuries-old practice that remains a feature of modern conflict.” Furthermore, as “cultural heritage as the bedrock of cultural identities, (…) crimes committed against cultural heritage constitute, first and foremost, an attack on a particular group’s identity and practices, but in addition, an attack on an essential interest of the entire international community.”
The Rome Statute equips the ICC with jurisdiction over crimes against or affecting cultural heritage. For example, crimes against cultural heritage, carried out as a war crime in contravention of Article 8 of the Rome Statute, may include the directing of attacks against certain protected objects; the directing of attacks against civilian objects and other crimes which may nonetheless indirectly relate to cultural heritage. In September 2015, the OTP brought charges relating to cultural property for the first time ever in the case of Mr Ahmad al-Faqi al Mahdi, which arose out of the situation of Mali. In September 2016, al Mahdi was convicted of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments following his own admission of guilt. The case sent a strong message that the intentional targeting of cultural heritage is a serious crime.
Crimes against or affecting cultural heritage frequently occur alongside genocide, “which may be effected by killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, when committed with the requisite intent.” Furthermore “acts that are directed specifically against a group’s cultural heritage may assist to demonstrate the specific intent and the manifest pattern as required under article 6.”
Furthermore, the destruction of cultural heritage is an important early warning sign of an atrocity to come. Indeed, within the U.N. Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, the destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a common risk factor for atrocity crimes (e.g. common risk factor 7, “Destruction or plundering of essential goods or installations for protected groups, populations or individuals, or of property related to cultural and religious identity.”) Similarly, such crimes are a risk factor of genocide (e.g. Risk factor of genocide 9, “Past or present serious tensions or conflicts involving other types of groups (political, social, cultural, geographical, etc.) that could develop along national, ethnic, racial or religious lines.”) As such, crimes against cultural heritage, as an early warning sign, can help to identify scenarios where they may later lead to atrocities.
The destruction of cultural heritage is an important, and often overlooked, element of the atrocity crimes. Cultural heritage is as expressions of human life. As emphasized by the OTP, crimes affecting cultural heritage impact “our shared sense of humanity and the daily lives of local populations.” As such, they require comprehensive responses.
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