Protection of Cultural Heritage in the 21st century

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Interview with Marilyne Mingou, expert in the Rule of Law in wartime (Belgium)

During World War II a military art protection organization, the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives section was founded to protect European cultural heritage from the destruction or looting caused by war, the so called „Monuments Men“. After the war their ideas and values have been continued by the UNESCO and by the rules of the Convention of The Hague of 1954. This convention binds its signees „to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property. They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party“ (Article 4, 3). Till today armed conflicts had caused a lot of harm to the world’s cultural heritage – the necessity for its protection is still existing. Afghanistan, Ukraine or Syria – 1000 years of cultural are at risk to be lost in the wars.

1. Marilyne, what can countries do to protect their cultural heritage already in the time of peace, according to the Hague Convention?

Before starting, please allow me to give a small precision as to the context of my answers. I am a member of the Belgian Army, so I can talk only through my experience in this army. Also, my answers reflect my own opinion, and not necessarily those of the Belgian Armed Forces.

The protection of monuments and cultural heritage in warfare starts in peace time. According to the Hague Convention, States are bound to protect the cultural goods on their territory and this means that two MAJOR tasks can be identified: firstly the identification and general protection of cultural heritage and secondly, making sure the rules and regulations with regard to the protection of this heritage in wartime are spread within the population and of course, more specifically, the army.
Protection of cultural heritage starts with the identification and eventual marking of these by means of the protective shield. In Belgium, this is, according to the type of good, a federal, communal or regional responsibility. Let’s not go too much into detail …
The second major task is much more important in my view, because it is about awareness. First of all the general population should, starting with their education from a young age, be made aware that cultural patrimony is what identifies them as such. History – from ancient Cartago to 21st century Mali – has shown that destroying cultural property can be a much more fatal blow to a community than any other attack. Apart from the legal obligation to protect cultural heritage, it is important that a nation promotes this respect towards its people.
International law dictates that nations have to “disseminate the text of the Convention and the Regulations for its execution as widely as possible in their respective countries. They undertake, in particular, to include the study thereof in their programs of military and, if possible, civilian training, so that its principles are made known to the whole population, especially the armed forces and per-sonnel engaged in the protection of cultural property”. One notices that the Hague Convention (Art 25) quotes the military first, as being the principal actor of the law of armed conflicts.
The Belgian Armed Forces include this dissemination in all levels of training of its soldiers, from basic training to senior staff courses. All military personnel is issued, at the beginning of its training with a card titled “The Humanitarian Rules of the Soldier”, on which the sign for recognition of cultural heritage is also explained. Members of the armed forces, from soldier to general thus learn how to differentiate a military from a civilian objective, how to not endanger civil population and property – more specifically cultural property – and what measures to take in order to avoid using cultural property for military means. The theory is integrated and practices in exercises on the tactical and strategic level. For example, the artillery commander will plan his fire taking into consideration security ranges around cultural property; the infantry or cavalry commander will advance his troops while avoiding them; and the supply officer will keep his lines of communication away from cultural heritage sites.

2. Of course in case of an armed conflict the protection of people’s lives and health has the highest priority. How would you describe the role of cultural heritage protection in warfare?

This is a tricky question, because it implies that at some point in conflict, a choice will have to be made between human life and a material good.
To answer it, it is important to know how decisions that might lead to having to make the choice are made on the military level. And this shows that a zero collateral damage plan is next to impossi-ble. At the beginning of a planning phase, the commander will listen to his staff members expose their analysis of the task at hand. This is called the Mission Analysis Brief. During this briefing, the operations officer will give some guidance and possible actions on the mission itself and how to execute it. To that are added the options of the engineers, of fire support, of the logistic and transmission troops, to name just a few. Also speaking in that forum is the legal advisor, who will point out, among other points, the presence of cultural heritage in the field. Now informed with all these elements, the commander has to make a decision on the course of action to follow. One can easily guess that there will never be a perfect plan that will have a positive impact in all the areas of expertise.
One thing is certain: the commander has a mission to fulfill and in order to do so, he has to make some choices. To him, the only variables will be: inflicting as much damage as possible to the enemy and sustaining as less damage as possible to his own troops. And yes, this might mean that some rules have to be bent.
The most typical school-example, used in nearly all exercises, is that of the enemy sniper in the bell tower of a century-old – and of course clearly marked with the protection sign – church. The sniper has a clear view on your own troops and is shooting them one by one. The question to the commander will be, what to do? The rules of law regarding cultural protection will say that you are not allowed to destroy the tower. But your mission is to save your man and get on with the mission. Of course, the right decision in this case would be to do exactly so, even if it means destroying cultural property. This is an example of putting a higher priority to people’s health.
Another exercise could be the question of destroying a bridge. Defensive warfare might dictate the need to destroy ways of passage of the enemy over a river, in order to gain delays for one’s own retreat. What if those bridges are protected cultural property?
Now of course it can be argued that the church in the first question lost its protection the moment the enemy took possession of the tower, making it de facto a military objective. That is also one of the questions that the commander needs to resolve for his troops: how to avoid endangering cultural property by your own presence? Radio stations are best installed on high ground. What if the best high ground is next to an 18th century unique castle? What if the best cellar in which to stockpile your ammunition is that of an abbey? What if the only bridge capable of holding your heavy transportation is protected heritage?
In conclusion, the role of cultural heritage protection in warfare can be ambivalent. It’s necessary, it’s one of the duties of the military commander, but in a way, it will always be subordinated to the commander’s mission and his duty towards his men. I would not go so far as calling it a “nice to have” aspect of warfare, but it’s definitely “lesser evil”.

3. During World War II the „Monument Men“ has been an army institution responsible for the protection of architectural structure, monuments, archives and artworks. A similar institution, the German „Kunstschutz“, has already existed in World War I. How do nowadays armies handle cultural heritage? Is there a 21st century-Monuments Men-Troop?

To start with a short answer: no European army today has a troop section entirely dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage like the Monument Men were in WWII.
In Belgium, the responsible authority is the Commission Interministérielle de Droit Humanitaire, in which the minister of Defense has a seat also. Their duty is the dissemination of the rules of international law within the State. And one part of that is the Hague Convention and its protocols, in the way we’ve seen in the previous question.
The Belgian Armed Forces have trained legal advisors (called in French the Conseillers en Droit des Conflits Armés) that are attached to the staffs of the fighting units and that will advise the commander on the way to respect international humanitarian law during an engagement. They will expose to the commander his options with regard to the protection of cultural property.
Cultural property has also become an element of modern agreements for international missions. For example, the Agreement between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the Status of NATO Forces and NATO personnel conducting mutually agreed NATO-led activities in Afghanistan states in its article that NATO Forces operations and activities shall at all times be conducted with full respect for Afghan laws and regulations for the protection of sites or artifacts of historic and cultural heritage.
This is a clear example on how the protection of cultural heritage is taken into consideration at the highest level of operations planning.

4. Would you like to add anything?

I don’t want to sound cynical or in any way fatalistic, but we cannot get past the fact that 21st century wars are fought differently than the previous conflicts. Never before was the loss of civilian life and civilian property as high as in the recent decades of war. We’ve already said it: “Cartago delenda est”. The destruction of cultural property can be intentional, but it can also be avoided. Let’s just take an example: during WWII, the Nazis did try to amass an enormous war bounty; but what’s often forgotten it the fact that in their advance through Belgium and France, a minimum of damage was done to the cemeteries and monuments of the Great War. Agreed… Adolf Hitler is reputed to have asked for the demolition of Käthe Kollwitz’s mourning parents at Vladslo, because parents should not weep before the sacrifice of their children, but rejoice … on the other hand, all during the Occupation of Paris, the daily ceremony of the “Ravivement de la Flamme” at the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe continued to take place. The German occupiers did not see the Soldat Inconnu as a symbol of victory, but saw the sacrifice behind it.
What I mean to point out with this is that the mentality of the warring nations has changed. We are faced today with an enemy that has, in the vast majority of the cases, not only little to no respect for their opponents, but even act with the aim to destroy the community as a whole. Their targets are not armed forces, in an open battle, but civilians, women and children included, and their culture and heritage. We cannot open the newspaper today without reading yet another story on civilian casualties or the destruction of historical buildings or collections. Our outrage on this nevertheless, is proportionate to the hate with which these destructions have been executed. But the enemy knows that, and will act on it.
How can we solve that problem? The answer is: we can’t. If our conduct of war endeavors to protect cultural heritage, the enemy of the 21st century is very likely to use that against us. It has been proved that terrorist organizations consciously install their logistics and their HQs in protected building, knowing that a nation respectful of international law will most likely not attack them there.
And there is nothing we can do against it.
It’s 21st Century warfare.

Thanks a lot for this interview!

About Marilyne Mingou

Marilyne Mingou (Photo by Ilse De Groof)

I entered the army in 1997 with the 137th “All Weapons” promotion of the Royal Military Academy. After training as a logistics officer, I served in the 210th Para Commando Logistics Company before being transferred to the instructions department. From 2004 to 2006 I was an instructor at NCO school before transferring to the RMA as an assistance teacher in International Law. During my time there, I specialized in the matter by getting a Complementary Master in Public International Law at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. After that I left my books on the side for a while to take over the HQ Company at the Eurocorps, in Strasbourg, before going back to school for Staff Officer Training.
My job today is to follow up the evolution of matters with regard to the Law of Armed conflicts, Human Rights, Children and Armed Conflicts, Diversity and Gender – to name but a few aspects of modern warfare – within the international community and to help implement these matters into Defense policy, and thus into operations and day-to-day work of the Belgian Armed Forces and our partners and allies.
In my spare time, I’m a fervent marcher, captain of an international military team that roams Europe on foot over the year; and when I’m not marching, one can find me either on horseback, or studying the history and the legacy of the First World War.

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