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Protecting cultural heritage in war zones


In the throes of war, protecting such cultural heritage as the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Mostar Bridge, the Timbuktu libraries and Palmyra supposedly is a priority on the international public policy agenda; but government responses so far have been limited to deploring such destruction. This article explores the evolving, albeit contested, norm of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and its relevance for cultural heritage. There is no need for a hierarchy of protection – civilians or culture – because the juxtaposition is as erroneous as choosing between people and the environment. This essay begins with a discussion of cultural heritage and defines the scope for the application of any new international normative consensus. It then explores why R2P, in the original concept of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), is an appropriate framework for thinking about cultural protection, despite considerable political headwinds. It then examines the current opportune political moment and existing legal tools. Finally, there is a brief consideration of the obstacles facing the creation of a better framework for cultural protection in zones of armed conflict.

Keywords: cultural heritage, R2P, Global South, United Nations, UNESCO, prevention, reaction, peacebuilding, humanitarianism, ICISS


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