In May Islamic State captured Palmyra, the Roman ruins designated a UNESCO world heritage site, prompting international concern about the fate of the city’s antiquities. Earlier this month it was confirmed that jihadis had destroyed a 2,000 year old statue outside the Palymyra museum. Photographs online show several carved busts being destroyed with sledgehammers, most likely stolen from local tombs. As Syria’s antiquities director has said, “the destruction is worse than the theft because they cannot be recovered”.
Buildings, libraries, art and archaeological sites have all been destroyed across the world as a result of war. Looting in conflict is believed to be the third largest international crime network after guns and drugs. A prominent example is the looting from the National Museum of Iraq where sales of antiquities were used to fund insurgency.
Successive British Governments have announced their commitment to protecting cultural property in the event of armed conflict. However, the UK remains the only member of the UN Security Council not to have signed up to the 1954 Hague Convention. This international agreement for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was set up to protect the world’s ancient cultural sites and artifacts.
International conventions to protect cultural property can make a significant difference. During World War Two the Allies set up the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives unit, dubbed the ‘Monuments Men’, to safeguard and repatriate cultural heritage. Officers during the Normandy invasions were specifically ordered not to destroy cultural property through collateral damage unless there was no other military alternative.
There is much that the UK could do to protect cultural treasures. As a nation we have both the knowledge and the expertise in our cultural institutions to help. As the outgoing director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor has proposed, we could offer British trained archaeological experts to recover antiquities at risk from looting and war.
Funding is going to be critical to help with the safeguarding and recovery of monuments today in danger of destruction. Philanthropists can no doubt help but there is an argument that part of the Department for International Development’s budget for overseas aid should be allocated to this fund.
It is positive news that the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has announced plans for a summit in September to co-ordinate responses to the threat to ancient cities in Iraq and Syria, including Palmyra. The proposed conference will include experts to offer advice from museums, the British Council and the Red Cross.
The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its identity and sense of history and place. Recent conflicts, particularly in Iraq and Syria, mean that this issue is even more pressing before the destruction of any further monuments or objects.
If the Government is truly committed to protecting the world’s cultural artifacts then the UK must ratify the Hague Convention and enshrine it into UK law. It is time for the Culture Secretary to push for parliamentary time to introduce this legislation.
Theo Clarke is an art historian, critic and curator. She stood as the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol East in the 2015 General Election.
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