Culture Crumbling

21 Mar 2017

The destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflict is its own humanitarian crisis, impeding on post-conflict restoration.



Why is it happening ?

The destruction of cultural heritage as a consequence of war is not a new phenomenon. During periods of violence, buildings and cultural treasures are often damaged or destroyed alongside the people who inhabit them. Since the start of the “war on terror”, the Middle East has seen thousands of years of history obliterated or permanently defaced in bombings and terrorist attacks. No case perhaps has been so widely shown in relation to this than Palmyra, in northern Syria. The second and current ISIS occupation of the UNESCO site continues to threaten an important part of the region’s past, as well as its present, in the lives of those living in its vicinity. The victims of armed conflict are not only humans, but human histories and cultures.


However, intentional destruction by insurgent groups against high profile sites like Palmyra give only a portion of this type of violence. The Islamic State group uses their media presence to easily disseminate videos of their destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites to a global audience, in acts which both mirror and expand upon their goal of annihilation. Yet other forces pose an even stronger threat to local history through destruction we do not see. Unrelenting airstrikes by Saudi and US forces have targeted cultural heritage in Yemen, in a bid to rid its historic cities of Houthi rebels. In Aleppo, Russian and Syrian forces, as well as the splintered groups they are fighting, have done the same. While the suffering of Yemeni and Syrian civilians should be of the greatest concern, overlooking the death of cultural heritage in these countries would be a huge mistake.


Why does it matter?

There has been an ongoing movement from the academic community and international institutions like the Smithsonian and UNESCO to condemn the destruction. In a historic ruling, last September, the International Criminal Court succeeded in convicting a member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb of destroying shrines and pre-Islamic mausoleums in historic Timbuktu, which solidified cultural heritage destruction as a war crime. A number of international conventions and customary laws call for its prevention, and for the safeguarding of cultural property. However, even as the action faces stronger condemnation, it has not slowed.


Besides the visceral pain many feel seeing images of exploded temples and crumbled museums, the deeper impact will last for decades in the areas in which it occurs. The destruction of cultural heritage is a serious impediment to peace building and the resolution of violent conflict. The lingering effects of wars go beyond a loss of scenery and tourist revenue, and threatens the identity, history, and social fabric of its victims. This, in many cases is the aim of the destruction—to weaponize the culture against its owners and erase their connection and claim to the land they inhabit. Victims of war who have been displaced and forced to flee will face a challenge in returning to their former homes when the evidence of their identity and connection to their culture has been destroyed.


What can you do about it?

Millennials have seen technology and modernization replace many of our connections to history. Modern life seems constantly preoccupied with the innovation of the future. But without the solid foundation of our past and our collective cultural histories, new generations lose the chance to build on them in a meaningful way. At the same time, if humankind focuses only on the direct human casualties of war without acknowledging the cultural casualties, the tools that can create lasting peace are lost. Everyone is responsible for protecting their heritage and historical resources, whether through financial support or simply appreciation and study. By doing this, all can show solidarity not only with those threatened in war, but with their identity as members of unique living cultures.


Millennials have an obligation to prevent violence, against both individuals and communities, and to work towards the promotion of peace whenever possible. But lasting peace can only come through embracing unique identities and ensuring other cultures are equally protected. The physical sites which represent different histories are important markers of not only what sets groups apart, but also of what brings groups together—shared myths and stories, and living experiences. Through engaging with and supporting institutions which value the role cultural heritage plays in shaping our own societies, Millennials can help provide those in power with the resources to influence laws around destruction, as well as to preemptively protect vulnerable sites and historic resources. The world must seek to talk about and condemn the targeting of cultural sites just as it condemns the targeting of civilians in armed conflict. Any assault on history is an assault on all.





Image Credit: Getty Images

Morgan Cloud briefs regularly from Washington DC., United States. She holds a dual masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and Mediterranean Security.



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