The Strategic Importance of Protecting Cultural Heritage During International Conflict

Stella Martin

Heritage and identity often justify and even drive armed conflict, yet protection of them tends to take a backseat in response efforts and aid. When violence erupts between or within states, the initial concern of the global community is not the protection of art and cultural heritage. When lives are lost and homes are destroyed, the focus is justifiably not on the threat the conflict poses to artwork within the conflict zone. However, art and culture cannot be totally forgotten in times of crisis.

In a policy report released by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, the office explains the severity of crimes against or affecting cultural heritage, stating that they “touch upon the very notion of what it means to be human, sometimes eroding entire swaths of human history, ingenuity, and artistic creation.”[1] This is why the international legal system considers crimes against cultural heritage to be war crimes and prosecutes violators accordingly.

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, implemented in 1954, codified the protection of cultural heritage.[2] The convention safeguarded cultural property and required States to refrain from directing acts of hostility unless excused by imperative military necessity.[3] It also prohibited the removal of cultural property from occupied territory, but made the definition of occupied territory very narrow, requiring the occupier to be a State,[4] thus excluding situations like the occupation of Syria by the Islamic State. In 1999, the international community implemented the Second Protocol of the convention, which narrowed the military necessity waiver and prohibited any alteration of cultural property by an occupying State.[5]

Importantly, these conventions are limited by the weaknesses of international law as a whole. There is significant debate among legal and political scholars as to whether international law is actually enforceable.[6] Although there is no overarching authority enforcing international law, States are bound to treaties to which they are parties and to customary international law. Similarly, while arguments can be made that the political and physical strength of a State determines its exposure to accountability, formal and informal sanctions are highly effective at regulating conduct, and international courts and tribunals do find individual and State actors guilty of violating international law. Even in the case of cultural heritage destruction, the International Criminal Court has made convictions and recommended prison time.[7] 

Nevertheless, whatever sanctions or punishments that are in place regarding the destruction of art and cultural heritage do not seem to be doing enough to insure their protection. As a timely example, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine reported that “as of February 25, 2023, 1322 cultural infrastructure facilities have been damaged as a result of Russian aggression.”[8] This includes 508 libraries, 69 museums and galleries, 22 theaters and philharmonic societies, and 100 art education institutions. This also notably does not include regions that are currently under temporary occupation.[9] As in many international conflicts throughout history, destruction of cultural heritage and identity is being used as a deliberate wartime tactic. Such methods are especially effective in cases like that of Ukraine and Russia. Destroying unique Ukrainian identity, culture, and art is part of a “cultural cleansing” dating back to the invasion of Crimea in 2014, that clearly facilitates Russia’s goal of reincorporating Ukraine into the Russian State.[10]

Therefore, while the immediate concern in Ukraine is the protection of lives, it is an important strategic response, and one justified by international law, to focus on the protection of cultural heritage as well. 


[1] Policy on Cultural Heritage, Int’l Crim. Ct. Off. of the Prosecutor (2021), [] [].

[2] Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, UNESCO (May 14, 1954), [] [].

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, UNESCO (Mar. 26, 1999), [] [].

[6] Fredrick L. Kirgis, Enforcing International Law, 1 Am. Soc’y of Int’l L. (1996), [] [].

[7] Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, ICC-01/12-01/15, [] [].

[8] Russians Have Damaged More than 500 Libraries in Ukraine, Chytomo (Mar. 7, 2023), [] [].

[9] Id.

[10] Magdalena Pasikowska-Schnass, European Cultural Heritage Days:  Russia’s Cultural War Against Ukraine, European Parliament Think Tank (Sept. 16, 2022), [] [].