Members of the House of Lords and leading cultural heritage experts are lobbying the UK government to ratify the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (the ‘Hague Convention’) in light of reports of extensive destruction and trafficking in cultural heritage property in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State. As the only Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council not to have signed, the government is being urged to deliver on its pledge last year to sign ‘at the first opportunity’ in a renewed campaign led by the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield.
The Hague Convention was the first international treaty aimed at protecting cultural heritage in the context of war and which highlighted the concept of common heritage. It was adopted in 1954 in response to the widespread damage and looting of cultural property during World War II.
The Convention requires states parties to prepare during peacetime for the safeguarding of cultural property against the foreseeable effects of armed conflict, and to respect cultural property situated within their territory as well as in other states. This includes undertaking to prohibit any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of cultural property, and refraining from reprisals against such property. If occupying another state, states parties should support the competent national authorities in preserving its cultural property.
The Convention also specifies a protective emblem to facilitate the identification of protected cultural property during armed conflict, known as the Blue Shield. A triple use of that sign designates exceptionally important cultural property under special protection. This led to the creation of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, which works to protect the world's cultural heritage threatened by wars and natural disasters and is described as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross.
Blue Shield symbol near a staff entrance at the Kunsthistorisches
Museum in Vienna|
(Photo: Corine Wegener/Getty Conservation Institute)
Ratification by the UK government
The UK remains ‘arguably the most significant military power’ and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad not to have ratified the Hague Convention, according to the UK Blue Shield. Its fellow Permanent Members on the Security Council have already done so - Russia in 1957, China in 2000, France in 1957, and the US in 2009.
The UK government has appeared close to ratifying the Convention on many occasions since 1954, announcing its commitment in 2004 after the adoption of the Second Protocol in 1999 (which the UK was involved in negotiating) addressed their concerns over the Convention’s shortcomings. A draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was even published in January 2008, but it progressed no further despite only minor modifications being required. The UK government again announced plans to ratify ‘at the first opportunity’ in June 2015, and in January 2016 the Minister of State for Culture Ed Vaizey declared the government’s ‘firm commitment’ to introduce new legislation enabling ratification of the Convention and its two Protocols ‘at the earliest opportunity’.
The government has tiptoed around committing to a firm deadline for signing the Convention, choosing instead to focus attention on ad hoc cultural heritage initiatives. At the end of last year it announced £30m of funding for the establishment of the Cultural Protection Fund, which is intended to fund a team of local experts to stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and begin the process of reconstructing and preserving cultural artefacts. The Army has declared its intention to recruit a team of ‘Monuments Men’ - specialists who will deploy to warzones alongside commanders to advise on how to locate, protect and save cultural riches in the area they are fighting.
However, with no real framework or commitment in place for protecting cultural heritage in wartime, the UK’s ‘dithering’ over the Hague Convention has been described as “pathetic – it leaves Britain looking shamefully inept”. In a House of Lords debate on 14 January reported by the Art Newspaper, Baroness Andrews stated that there is a ‘growing sense of urgency’ to sign the Convention following ‘grotesque failures in Iraq’ and ‘increasing barbarity in Syria’. With cross-party support - including from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the Department for Overseas Development; and the Ministry of Defence - it is hard to understand the UK government’s reluctance to ratify. If it is part of a blanket policy to avoid ratifying any of the UNESCO cultural heritage protection treaties - including the 1970 Convention on illicit trafficking, whose Secretariat has offered on several occasions to mediate in the UK's ongoing Parthenon marbles dispute with the Greek government - then it is looking like an increasingly difficult position to defend.
The UK Blue Shield urges supporters to write to their MP using the template which can be found here. More information on the UK Blue Shield’s campaign can be found at http://ukblueshield.org.uk/ or by contacting Philip Deans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further information about the Hague Convention, its Protocols and the work of the International Committee of the Blue Shield can be found on the UNESCO website here.