Since February 24, 2022, UNESCO has verified the damage or destruction of nearly 100 culturally important sites in Ukraine. This has happened despite the UN Security Council, of which the Russia is a permanent member, issuing a resolution (2347) in 2017 that “condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage.”1S/RES/2347, March 24, 2017. Ukrainian museum and heritage professionals have been joining forces to do what they can to protect heritage and put in place emergency evacuations where possible. This most recent wave of heritage destruction is shocking but unfortunately also something we have become familiar with.“The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage during wartime has always grabbed headlines worldwide, particularly in recent years, spurred by the highly mediatized targeting of iconic sites.”
The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage during wartime has always grabbed headlines worldwide, particularly in recent years, spurred by the highly mediatized targeting of iconic sites. In response, the rhetoric used to denounce such acts became increasingly fiery, labeling them as acts of “barbarism,” “cultural cleansing,” and declaring heritage “extremism’s new target”2See speeches and press releases by Irina Bokova on the UNESCO website, e.g., “Director-General denounces cultural cleansing during visit to Iraq,” UNESCO, November 2, 2016.—terms that in the case of Ukraine sound rather hollow as so much of the heritage being destroyed is connected to Russian culture. This linguistic hyperbole masks a complex underbelly, however, for the motivations, immediate consequences, and medium-term impacts of this destruction, which are far from straightforward. In order to better grasp what is at stake when cultural heritage becomes overtly engaged in violence, this essay draws on illustrative examples from a number of conflicts to briefly address two questions: Why and how does heritage become a target in armed conflicts? What is the potential of reparations as a post destruction response?
By shifting how we understand heritage to an analysis of the complex underlying motivations for destruction and, consequentially, the diverse forms of repair that might best respond to it, we can shed light on the relationship between cultural heritage and violent conflict. Overlooking how heritage is embedded in cultural/social/political networks and neglecting to take into account how overt violence is part of an ongoing process of damage, rather than an explosive expression of it, has meant that past responses have often fallen short of repairing the harm caused. Drawing on the reparations work done by international courts, here I argue that we need to consider new modalities of repair.
Why heritage becomes the target of destruction in conflict
Cultural heritage is not just a resource to be protected: It is a central element in the stories that society tells itself about itself—its origins, character, future projects, its values, and aspirations. Little wonder then that it becomes a target when tensions break out.
Today heritage is understood by critical heritage scholars as a process of meaning-making with constantly evolving associative values that make it highly political.3See, for example, Laurajane Smith, Emotional Heritage: Visitor Engagement at Museums and Heritage Sites (London: Routledge, 2020). The political nature of heritage is intertwined with its associative value and surfaces at a variety of scales. If we accept that heritage is a function of social life, used by collectives to define and distinguish themselves from other groups, it surfaces at the microscale of family heritage, the intercommunal level ranging from villages and cities to sports clubs, professional associations, and cultural groups, for example, and at the macroscale of state politics and international relations. The implications of understanding heritage as a process of meaning-making, rather than artifact, are that it is a highly political and continuously evolving; in the process, the relational and associative value of heritage—how people relate to, derive meaning from, and engage emotionally with it—has come to the fore.
Understanding heritage to be a constructive, discursive, and inherently political process has opened new avenues for investigating the (ab)uses of heritage. As a crystallization of content loaded with powerful emotions, stories, and symbols, cultural heritage is often in the crosshairs of opposing sides in any conflict in their attempts to instrumentalize this content to discredit enemies and radicalize binaries.“The attacks made headlines worldwide and eventually resulted in the first case heard at the International Criminal Court (ICC) exclusively for crimes against culture in The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi (ICC-01/12-01/15).”
When the Islamic militant group Ansar Eddine began attacking mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012, their aim was two-fold: to overtly defy the international community by targeting a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and to put a stop to people visiting these shrines to their ancestors and saints. The attacks made headlines worldwide and eventually resulted in the first case heard at the International Criminal Court (ICC) exclusively for crimes against culture in The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi (ICC-01/12-01/15). Al Mahdi, a member of the group, pleaded and was found guilty of intentionally directing attacks against religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu. During the trial, Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda referred to the mausoleums as the “embodiment of Malian history captured in tangible form from an era long gone.” In the subsequent Public Reparations Order (ICC-01/12-01/15. 17-08-2017), victim statements indicate a different understanding of the sites as living heritage with significance beyond historic value, with comments such as: “When the mausoleums were destroyed, we were shattered as well. The pain is still there today. The city has changed. Timbuktu is no longer what it was; even if the saints protect us still, it’s not the same as before. We lost everything; today we have nothing.”4International Criminal Court, Public Reparations Order in the case of The Prosecutor v. Al Mahdi, para. 85, 34–35. ICC-01/12-01/15, August 17, 2017.
Such statements are not unique to Timbuktu; the near-total destruction of the Basque town of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, for example, spurred similar feelings of disorientation that focused on the symbolic and spiritual loss: “Gernika no longer exists. Gernika no longer belongs to us.”5Responses to the bombing were collected in Maria Jesus Cava Mesa et al., Memoria colectiva del bombardeo de Gernika (Bilbao & Gernika: Bakeaz & Gernika Gogoratuz, 1995). Heritage, after all, is constructed in both tangible and intangible forms. It is challenging to evaluate the destruction of something that can’t be seen or touched; such loss is further exacerbated when the transmitters of a community’s heritage are killed, as this cuts short intergenerational transmission and creates gaps that are difficult to overcome.6See Al Mahdi para. 85. describing these as “disruptions of culture.”
The relationship between cultural heritage and conflict is an old one, but one that has given rise to new questions.7Dacia Viejo Rose and Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, “Cultural Heritage and Conflict: New Questions for an Old Relationship” in The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, eds. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson (Basingstoke & NY: Palgrave McMillan, 2015), 281–296. Until now, this relationship has been studied largely in terms of how treasured objects and sites are physically destroyed and looted during wars, and the measures employed to mitigate this damage. These approaches focus on the materiality of heritage and treat it as a passive resource to be protected. Recent changes in our conceptualization of heritage and powerful statements from communities such as those cited above, however, challenge previous understandings of how it is affected by war. They suggest that, in focusing only on the materiality of heritage reconstruction, we miss important aspects of heritage’s meaning and value; instead, we should move toward more diverse forms of reparation that seek to restore heritage’s immaterial features.
An assessment of reparations as a post destruction response
Heritage sites can be rebuilt—restoration experts brought in, original building materials sourced, archival information found and used to inform the process—culminating with a postcard-perfect image of the reconstructed site. Yet, this does not mean that the heritage site has been recovered. As the evolution of ICOMOS Charters, UNESCO Conventions, and even the categories used to nominate sites for official heritage designation shows,8See the ICOMOS Charters that have over the last 20 years charted a growing awareness of the importance of intangible and associative values—The Nara Document on Authenticity (1994), The Quebec Declaration on the Preservation of the Spirit of Place (2008), The Australian ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance (Burra Charter, 1981, updated in 2013), Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Value (New Zealand 2010)—and the increased use of criteria (vi) in nominations for World Heritage sites. authenticity, significance, and social value of heritage do not lie exclusively or even primarily in the materiality of an object or site. They lie in people’s relationships with it, in the emotions, stories, meanings, and values ascribed to it, and these are much harder to recover after a site has been destroyed, because the destruction does not occur in a vacuum but in a cycle of cultural violence with a long history and long-term consequences.“The criminalization of cultural heritage destruction and the attempt to develop meaningful reparations is, however, a contemporary challenge that demands more research, and a first step in this is a deeper understanding of the harm caused by violence.”
In comparison to reconstruction, reparations for cultural destruction have been under-researched and have only recently begun attracting attention because of recent proceedings at the ICC.9The Al Mahdi trial at the ICC was the first time that a case was brought before an international tribunal exclusively on the grounds of destruction of cultural heritage. As Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi pleaded and was found guilty, both the ICC and the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) then had to develop a Reparations Order corresponding with the crimes that he was found guilty of. Both the ICC and TFV consulted with legal experts and researchers on heritage destruction who were thus spurred to pursue work on this particular topic. Until the Al Mahdi trial reparations for cultural destruction had only been discussed in the context of larger peace treaties. For instance, German reparations for the destruction of Belgium’s Louvain Library in the Treaty of Versailles, Articles 247, and the return of two works removed from Belgian Churches to German museums. Another example is the Peace Treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia that was accompanied by a Damages Claim that included reparations orders for a number of heritage sites destroyed, including Eritrea’s Stela of Matara. Reparations stem from legal responses to violence and come in different forms, such as restitution, compensation, or justice. In the case of violence directed at cultural heritage, the reparations ordered by the ICC in the case of Al Mahdi were framed according to three categories “…damage to the attacked historic and religious buildings, consequential economic loss and moral harm” (ICC-CPI-20170817-PR1329). Tribunals are not the only means by which attempts have been made to redress the damage of cultural violence; other approaches include the return of heritage objects, such as the Axum Stele from Italy to Ethiopia, and the proactive work on reconciliation efforts by many museums and NGOs around the world. The criminalization of cultural heritage destruction and the attempt to develop meaningful reparations is, however, a contemporary challenge that demands more research, and a first step in this is a deeper understanding of the harm caused by violence.
Cultural violence manifesting as the deliberate destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage has to be understood in terms of collective and intergenerational harms to a community. It is through sites and objects, traditional practices, and know-how that older generations communicate collective memory, knowledge, and identity to the younger. As we saw in the statements from the Al Mahdi case, in which ancient mausoleums that the community believed spiritually protected Timbuktu from bad fortune were targeted, the damage caused can be emotional and moral, harming a community’s spiritual worldview. As the Malian Minister of Culture stated, the attack on Timbuktu could be understood as “an attack on what fuels our soul, on the very essence of our cultural values. Their objective was to destroy our past, our culture, our identity, and in fact our dignity.”10Malian Ministry of Culture, “Projet de discours de Monsieur le Ministre de la Culture à l’occasion de l’ouverture de la journée de solidarité pour le Mali,” MLI-OTP-0004-0292, 294 (unofficial internal translation), cited by OTP in ICC-01/12-01/15-139-Red, para. 19.
Considering the multiple scales of harm caused by the destruction of cultural heritage, delivering reparation that remedies past violence is no small task. In the case of The Prosecutor vs Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, the ICC found the defendant guilty, and the Reparations Order found him liable for 2.7 million euros, to compensate the community according to three categories of harm identified by the Court: damages to buildings, resulting economic loss, and moral harm. Reparations for the third category were identified as symbolic measures exemplified as memorialization, commemoration, and ceremonies.11International Criminal Court, Al Mahdi. The Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) subsequently consulted with a number of experts to try and understand what concrete forms such symbolic measures might take. If a memorial were to be built, for instance, it was not clear what exactly it should memorialize—the original shrines, their destruction, or their reconstruction.“Within the transitional justice literature there have increasingly been calls to attend to the dangers of privileging certain voices and approaches favored by authoritative experts over those of affected communities.”
That memorialization is posited as the form of repair by courts, and the panoply of political and economic agencies involved in post-conflict recovery is problematic.12Kris Brown, “Commemoration as Symbolic Reparation: New Narratives or Spaces of Conflict?” Human Rights Review 14, no. 3 (2013): 273–289. Within the transitional justice literature there have increasingly been calls to attend to the dangers of privileging certain voices and approaches favored by authoritative experts over those of affected communities.13Tshepo Madlingozi, “On Transitional Justice Entrepreneurs and the Production of Victims,” Journal of Human Rights Practice 2, no. 2 (2010): 208–228. How to do this was explored in the project “Restoring Cultural Property to Communities after Conflict,” which aimed at assessing the impact of the destruction of cultural heritage on the Cham community in Cambodia.14An AHRC-funded [AH/P007929/1] collaboration between the author and Professor Robin Hickey, Dr. Luke Moffett, and Dr. Rachel Killean of Queen’s University Belfast. In 1975, the Cham were Cambodia’s largest minority group; the Khmer Rouge targeted their cultural markers, from buildings to traditional dress, and deliberately dispersed their communities. The project’s fieldwork and consultations indicated that the community didn’t see memorials as a desired form of repair for cultural heritage loss. Instead, they wanted to recover elements of their intangible heritage that could in turn be transmitted to younger generations, recover places of worship where they could communicate their religious and cultural traditions, and be rewritten back into the national narrative of Cambodia. This research showed that telling the story of events can be the point at which to redistribute power and the resources needed by communities to build in their own way.
Where the violence of cultural heritage destruction was about erasing communities, the desired repair was about their reappearing. Importantly, however, the community did not want to be singled out as victims but to be rewritten into the historical narrative of Cambodia through exhibitions, textbooks, and education programs that relate how the Cham have been a part of Cambodia’s cultural landscape and the contributions they have made to its rich diversity, including initiatives to expand the use of the Cham language—in textbooks, children’s books, and poetry.15Rachel Killean et al., Cham: Culture & History Story of Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Documentation Centre of Cambodia, 2018). See also the “Cham Heritage Extension Program” run by Seton Hall University. These modes of repair make sense in the context of how the harm was experienced and is still felt today. The commemorative “solutions” that are so often proposed and come entwined with the promise of development funding, however, did not offer a satisfactory measure of repair. The example of the Cham highlights that, while the cultural heritage destruction that is often the focus of international attention is the highly performative attacks on monumental sites, this destruction is only one of many modalities of cultural violence.
The physical destruction of heritage can rupture social connections between the individuals within communities, and between these and the rest of society. The more nebulous intangible violence against cultural manifestations when communities are prohibited from practicing their religions, speaking their languages, or transmitting their stories and values to younger generations can have even more long-lasting effects. Recovery is complicated by the dispersal of communities, the direct targeting of particular cultural groups and holders of traditional knowledge, and the loss of performance spaces. Both forms of heritage destruction can be viewed as collective and intergenerational harms to a community, since tangible and intangible heritage are the principal means by which collective memory and shared identity are preserved. Focusing on the reconstruction of material heritage while excluding the repair of the intangible fails to appreciate the full range of heritage’s meanings, roles, and capacities in society.
Far from being the end result of creative development, cultural heritage is itself a creative process of meaning construction, constantly changing and multifaceted. This active dimension of cultural heritage requires further understanding, particularly if we are to develop more effective means for its protection during conflict and for its use as a resource in reparative justice efforts. In the words of the poet Amanda Gorman, as expressed in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” written and performed at the Presidential inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, 2021:
“[…] more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
This piece is a shortened version of an essay published in Experiencing Violence (London: The British Academy, 2021).
Banner photo: United Nations Photo/Flickr.