Protecting Cultural Property and Heritage Sites During Conflict

Dear Readers,

Today’s RE: Reflections and Explorations marks a milestone: publication of the 100th essay in this series. I would like to thank all of those who have contributed their time and talents to what has emerged as a high quality, salient and multi-disciplinary body of work addressing a disparate array of governance topics at all analytic scales. This collection of essays, which has already produced one edited volume, reflects the intellectual diversity, depth, vitality and imagination of the graduate student community interested in governance and policy making at this institution. It is a special privilege to edit their work each week and to learn of the wide range and high quality of such research now underway at Virginia Tech.

I also want to thank Dr. Lyusyena Kirakosyan (ASPECT, 2013) once more for developing the idea for the series and ensuring that it came to fruition. It surely constitutes a special gift to participating students and the intellectual community of the Institute for Policy and Governance and Virginia Tech of which she and all who have contributed to this series will always be a part. MOS



… collective memory is not an inert and passive thing, but a field of activity in which past events are selected, reconstructed, maintained, modified, and endowed with political meaning.

Edward Said (2000: 183)


            As the world watched, ISIS moved into the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria in May 2015. Throughout the following summer, descriptions of destruction and executions continued to reach an international audience. The photographs and videos of death and ancient monuments reduced to rubble were brutal and shocking. But, not only did ISIS destroy what they called idolatrous images, the terrorist group also sold smaller cultural artifacts on the black market to fund its activities (Jeffries 2016).

Palmyra provides an example of what can happen when conflict, unrest and political turmoil prevent protection of archaeological sites, museums and cultural property. Public displays of art, history and culture are political in that they constitute a form of soft power that can be used to stabilize national identities and promote community unity. The soft power of cultural heritage has vast possible implications for states and that influence can extend well beyond national borders. I argue that it is imperative to protect cultural heritage since it is important to citizen identity development and can also aid in the social recovery following conflict. International governing bodies also have a role in protection and recovery of cultural property during times of political turmoil. But due to a lack of transnational enforcement, their efforts can be hampered. Understanding existing frameworks for cultural property protection will aid in expanding such efforts in the future.

The Significance of Cultural Property

As a global community we define the interaction between humans and cultural property/heritage sites based both on the physical attributes we employ collectively to define value and the symbolic meanings we attach to them. Cultural property and heritage sites are also important to national development since they are used to contextualize present national identities and to relate them to past achievements. Objects and sites in a single nation related to ancient civilizations also influence and connect with international audiences on the basis of a shared past that extends well beyond any one country. Cultural property is therefore a tangible type of collective memory and as noted above, control of those assets—and cultural heritage in a broader context—is a form of soft power for states.

Exploring Cultural Property’s Soft Power

 “Soft power” describes international relations not based on military or economic pressure (hard power), but on the ability to influence other actors in the international system. Its reach and sway are intangible: “When it comes to soft power, museums are particularly strategic for international relations, whether as symbolic meeting places or as part of a network of relationships with other museums” (Lord and Blankenberg 2015: 22-23). The artifacts and objects housed in museums and preserved as heritage sites symbolize common cultural proximity to the ancient past. As apparatuses of soft power, museums—and the objects they house—can shape collective values and social understandings. They act as tools to create a unified national identity (Anderson 1983; Luke 2002) because they are significant tangible entities used to interpret and understand a society’s past (Lubar and Kingery 1993) and to shape its future. Consequently, when these are attacked or destroyed, the effects of that destruction go beyond the local to the international.

Protecting Cultural Property during Conflict

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was the first international agreement of its kind (UNESCO 1954). This pact arose in the aftermath of WWII with the decolonization of former colonies seeking to control their wealth (Merryman 1990; Brodie 2015). The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property followed and sought to establish guidelines for objects that had been unlawfully removed from nations (UNESCO; Merryman 1990). It created processes for ascertaining the provenance of objects transported transnationally. UNIDROIT, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, is an independent intergovernmental organization that first met in 1995 to continue an international conversation on the illicit movement of property and to investigate how private and commercial law can be used to restore objects previously removed from nations to their original locations (Merryman 2005; UNIDROIT 1995). Together, these 1954,1970 and 1995 international agreements comprise current international policies aimed at safeguarding cultural objects during situations of deep political and/or armed conflict (Brodie 2015). Unfortunately, these conventions lack universal enforcement mechanisms and are therefore understood and addressed differently throughout the world. Since these agreements cannot be enforced, these conventions act more as ethical guidelines or injunctions for nations and belligerents, rather than as provisions enjoying the force of law.

The 1954 Hague and 1970 UNESCO Conventions established the conditions under which artifacts taken by nations could be returned to their original locations. Although, as noted above, cultural heritage is often used to promote a national image and identity (Calhoun 2002), all of humanity can claim some level of proximity to ancient cultural artifacts, whether this is through an inherited understanding of its role in the world or a larger perspective on history. Future international agreements targeted to the problem of cultural heritage protection should begin from the premise that individuals possess both a national or sovereign identity, AND a shared global cultural identity.

How is the International Community Helping?

 International agreements have redefined the question of cultural property protection from a national issue to a global concern by recognizing that the matter does not respect state boundaries.  However, those efforts have often been controversial since they have involved transnational policies and dealt with issues that cross territorial borders (Bevir 2012, 89). Nonetheless, such agreements represent an integral part of the solution to protecting world heritage sites and to ending illicit trafficking in historic artifacts taken from them.

UNESCO, other international organizations and specific states[1] are currently pressing numerous initiatives designed to put policies and processes in place that will help safeguard cultural property during and after political unrest in nations throughout the world. These efforts are seeking to fill voids created by intra-national conflicts not fully addressed by the private or public sectors in those countries. For example, the International Council of Museums has developed databases that track missing—or endangered—artifacts and sites so that experts, military personnel and civilians know which cultural property has been looted and trafficked (ICOM Red List Databases, updated 2016). UNESCO has also proposed setting up protection zones around cultural heritage sites to reduce the amount of plundering that occurs in those locations during conflict. But the feasibility of this project is doubtful when considering other humanitarian crises in conflict zones that often demand more immediate attention: bombings, refugee relocation, crumbling infrastructure, etc.


Culture can be used as collateral, whether to represent national ideals or to promote a specific policy agenda. Said (2000) has claimed that public memory has long served as a political tool for the establishment of nations and his argument should be understood to extend to cultural heritage and all that it represents. Globalization has made it easier for citizens around the globe to become more aware of the imperative of cultural heritage protection and that salience has increased the international community’s willingness to develop efforts to preserve humanity’s shared past. The power of cultural heritage lies in its ability to connect human beings with objects and places that are not specific to their culture’s histories, but nonetheless tie them to the evolution of humankind as it has unfolded far beyond and single country’s borders.  

Sample list of groups working to protect cultural artifacts in conflict zones

 American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), Cultural Heritage Initiative:

Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation (ECHO):

Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project (ESSHP):

Illicit Cultural Property website:

International Council of Museums (ICOM) Emergency Red Lists for Objects at Risk (red lists can be found for-Egypt, Syria, and Iraq):

Penn Cultural Heritage Center:

UNESCO International Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage initiative:

United Nations Security Council Resolution (i.e. Resolution 64/78 of 7 December 2009 and Resolution A.67/L.34 of 5 December 2012)



[1] National governments are working to protect illegal cultural property crossing into their countries from conflict zones. For example, the US introduced H.R. 1493—the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act on March 19, 2015, which became Public Law No: 114-151 on May 9, 2016 (Committee on Foreign Affairs 2016).


 Anderson, B., 1983. Imagined Communities. Brooklyn: Verso.

 Bevir, M., 2012. Governance: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brodie, N., 2015. Syria and its Regional Neighbors: A Case of Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure? International Journal of Cultural Property, 22, pp. 317-335. [Accessed 20 September 2016].

Calhoun, C., 2002. Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Towards a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism. South Atlantic Quarterly 101, pp. 869-897.

Dexter Lord, G. and N. Blankenberg (eds), 2015. Cities, Museums and Soft Power. Washington DC: AAM Press.

ICOM. International Council of Museums’ Red List of Databases. [Accessed 30 September 2016].

Jeffries, S., 2015. Isis’s destruction of Palmyra: ‘The heart has been ripped out of the city’. The Guardian, 2 September 2015. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

Lubar, S. and Kingery, W. D. eds., 1993.  History From Things:  Essays on Material Culture. Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press.

Merryman, J.H., 2005. Cultural Property Internationalism. International Journal of Cultural Property, 12, pp. 11-39.

Merryman, J.H., 1990. “Protection” of the Cultural “Heritage”? The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 38, Supplement US Law in an Era of Democratization, pp. 513-522.

Said, E.W., 2000. Invention, Memory, and Place. Critical Inquiry, 26(2), pp. 175-192, Published by the University of Chicago Press.

UNESCO. 1954, 1999. Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

UNESCO. 1970. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris, 14 November 1970. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

UNIDROIT. 1995 (updated version 2016). History and Overview of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law. [Accessed 30 September 2016].

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs. “President Signs Engel Bill to Stop ISIS from Looting Antiquities.” Press Release, 9 May 2016. [Accessed 1 October 2016].


breske-photoAshleigh Breske is a doctoral student (ABD) in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include cultural property protection in conflict zones, indigenous rights and global governance and indigenous property repatriation. She is currently working on projects exploring the governance of repatriation as a political practice and the international movement of cultural property. Ashleigh is currently serving as the managing editor for the Review of Middle East Studies (RoMES). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Virginia Tech and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University.



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