International Protection of Cultural Heritage in Times of War

International Protection of Cultural Heritage in Times of War

Photo by Daniel Lincoln (Unsplash)

HeadshotTianchu Gao is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.


On Tuesday, March 8, 2022, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video recording that the Russian army flattened a 19th-century wooden church in the village of Viazivka in the Zhytomyr region. The architectural monument was an important national cultural heritage, listed under protection number 108. Olha Rutkovska, a member of the Ukraine council for the protection of monuments, described it as “the genocide of Ukrainian nation.”

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, responded swiftly to the challenge of protecting Ukraine’s cultural heritage from the war and bolstered the protective measures. Its first move was to mark the important cultural sites and monuments with the distinctive “blue shield” emblem as protected areas under international law. It aims to avoid deliberate or accidental damage to the monuments.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is the primary source of international humanitarian law that UNESCO relies on to protect cultural heritage. The destruction of cultural heritage during World War II served as the impetus for the Convention and the recognition of the importance of cultural heritage for all peoples of the world. All permanent members of the UN Security Council, including Russia, are bound by the Convention to refrain from violent acts against cultural properties. It also urges governments to take active moves to prevent damage and provide adequate protection in times of emergency.

Cultural heritage protection was further upgraded by the Second Protocol in 1999, in response to the devastating damage of cultural properties in the Yugoslavia wars. The protocol established an enhanced protection regime for cultural property and narrowed the exemptions from such protection. The protocol also formulated highly advanced rules on individual criminal responsibilities for breaches of the obligations.

It is undeniable that the international community has achieved much progress in protecting cultural heritage in armed conflicts. However, the efficacy of the Convention in checking Russia’s hostile acts against Ukraine’s cultural properties remains questionable. Firstly, there is insufficient awareness among armed forces about the Convention mandates. Former US President Donald Trump threatened to attack 52 Iranian cultural sites as retaliation against potential attacks from Iran in January 2020. He was heavily criticized immediately for his ignorance of the law and dismissive attitude about cultural heritage. Indeed, few armed forces have established their specialist personnel or conducted relevant training, as required by the Convention, to protect cultural property in military conflicts. It is questionable if Russia would uphold the values established in the Hague Convention, even under increasing pressure from the international community.

According to Professor Peter Probst from Tufts University, the results brought by the Convention and its listing of cultural properties is a “mixed bag.”  The world heritage list grew from 12 in 1977 to 1121 in 2019. On the one hand, it raised global awareness of the value of cultural heritage. However, it also made the heritage sites prominent targets, especially in asymmetrical warfare between nations and non-state actors. The destruction of cultural sites is a powerful attack on the other side’s beliefs and values. Many believe that it is part of Putin’s strategy to “erase” Ukraine as an independent state.

The protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage requires urgent attention from the international community. Only collective recognition and effort can protect cultural properties from destruction.