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The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict: Unnecessary Distraction or Mission-Relevant Priority?

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Emma CunliffeORCiD, Dr Paul Fox, Professor Peter Stone OBE


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It is inevitable that during armed conflict cultural heritage will be damaged and destroyed. Whilst there has been widespread consideration of how to protect communities, their heritage has not received the same consideration. Although their advice was largely ignored, for over 2,500 years military theorists – from Sun Tzu in 6th century BC China (Sun Tzu 1998) to von Clausewitz in 19th century Europe (von Clausewitz 1997) – have argued that damaging and destroying the cultural heritage of vanquished enemies is bad military practice (O’Keefe 2006), highlighting how its destruction and/or pillage can make occupied communities less easy to control, and can provide justification for the next conflict. Cultural heritage includes tangible places (such as historic sites and buildings), and moveable artefacts (like archives, libraries, art, and museum collections). These are collectively often referred to as cultural property. It also includes intangible remains of the past such as song, dance, and oral traditions remembered and ‘carried’ by individuals and communities. Intangible cultural heritage can be considered as part of the wider framework of protecting civilians. However, tangible manifestations of culture, here "cultural property" (CP) are frequently dismissed. This paper questions whether damage and destruction of cultural property really are inevitable, or whether at least some might be mitigated and avoided if appropriate action were taken. It begins with the historical background to cultural property protection (CPP), before introducing the Blue Shield (an NGO that works with the armed forces to protect CP). It demonstrates why CPP is important to the military, reflects on recent CPP activity, and concludes with some recommendations.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Cunliffe E, Fox P, Stone PG

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: NATO Open Publications

Year: 2018

Volume: 2

Issue: 4

Print publication date: 09/07/2018

Online publication date: 09/07/2018

Acceptance date: 05/07/2018

Date deposited: 06/02/2019

Publisher: NATO Allied Command Transformation Operational Experimentation