This Thursday, along with Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State Universities, our Center will co-sponsor a webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy. In advance of that event, we are publishing here short posts by the participants, which will serve as the basis for discussion at the webinar.

In this contribution, Leonard Hammer (University of Arizona) offers some thoughts on cultural heritage protection.

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Some of the key missing tools in cultural heritage protection are the lack of involvement of local/grassroots communities and minority groups in decision making regarding approaches towards engagement and scope of protection to be implemented. The top-down framework is centered on the state, largely a result of the international system’s structure that prevents involvement of important voices and serves to actually stymie protection efforts before, during, and after conflict, especially because local and minority groups might be the very targets of such action.

Another important aspect to consider is the integration of cultural heritage protection norms in a meaningful and effective manner, so as to incorporate all involved players in conflicts and post-conflict settings—especially non-state actors. I know this is a tall order but the current normative system is seriously lacking avenues or instruments that do so.

Granted, we have developments in post-conflict tribunals going after non-state actors who violated cultural heritage. Yet the problem with ex-post facto tools like the International Criminal Court or the attempt to link cultural heritage destruction with crimes like genocide is that they only pursue the serious violations and, sadly as we have seen thus far with the ICC, focus on areas that are the result of extending geo-political conflicts between actors into an additional arena. Further, current international tribunals only address serious violations, when cultural heritage protection demands more focused protection given the fragile nature of items at risk and the broad impact on communities—meaning there exists a strong disconnect between the scope of damage to a place (say a local church or mosque) and the level of “damage” or hurt to the targeted group—especially in the context of sacred space.

In the conflict context, whilst I know the ICRC and regional organizations like NATO and state military forces are attempting to integrate cultural heritage protection norms into their manuals and plans of action, there still exists a strong need for engagement and involvement of all actors to the conflict, in the same manner and level as would be for combat protection. That is, while a human life of course merits protection, it is asserted that integrating cultural heritage protection norms and understanding of cultural heritage protection (why it is to be done and what benefits can derive therefrom) into discourse with non-state actors and local communities would go a long way towards adequate cultural heritage protection. Indeed, many times non-state actors are not even aware of what cultural heritage protection is nor why it might matter. For many non-state actors, of course, they are deliberately targeting sacred space, which raises the question of the long-term interests of such actors (an angle that can be explored should they really seek to establish their own form of governance) and a better understanding of their own edicts and norms regarding the sacred space of the other.

Note too that state actors heavily rely on military necessity in a manner that might allow for too broad forms of military action when more nuanced action might be best or feasible.

Of course, cultural heritage protection does and can serve a positive role as a conduit for engagement and for healing—but again, with the involvement of local actors and grassroots movements to adequately incorporate and allow for post-conflict healing to emerge.

Finally, one should consider HOW we go about integrating civil society and international organizations into CHP along with to what extent we want to do so. Civil society, for example, maintains specific goals and interests that are many times beholden to either their donors, their “home state” interests, or subject to internal politics and bickering on the ground. Thus, civil society actors might merely echo the interests of a given side rather than act for the goal of cultural heritage protection.

This is something I desire to take a deeper look at when thinking about the socialization of cultural heritage protection norms in a constructivist, global governance, type of construct.

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