War destroys human beings and things, and among the latter, it destroys cultural property, which testifies to the pastness of the past. Particular attention has been paid to the protection of such property, and this concern has been enshrined in law since the Hague Convention of 1906-1907 and followed up on in the UNIDROIT Convention of the 1990s. In between these two dates, the Hague Convention, placed under the aegis of UNESCO, established in 1954 a treaty to which defenders of historical monuments threatened by the civil war in Syria have recently appealed.
Daniel Sherman closely studies here UNESCO’s archives in order to identify the fears, hopes, blind spots, and fragile solutions of people living during the years when the protection of monuments was already being associated with the doctrine of human rights.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Behind the Blue Shield:
Unesco and the protection of monuments in the 1950s
In September 2013, a little-known group called the U.S. Committee for the Blue Shield wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to take action under the Hague Convention to protect historic monuments threatened by the civil war in Syria. The brief news item in the New York Times about this appeal referred to the Hague Convention as an event, like a political convention, rather than what it actually is, a treaty concluded under the auspices of UNESCO in 19541.
But the relative obscurity of the “Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict” belies the symbolic importance the problem the treaty addresses has taken on in recent years.
Discussion of this treaty has hitherto been conducted largely by scholars of international law, who have placed it in a genealogy that goes back to the 1906-07 Hague Conference on the rules of war and extends to the 1995/1998 UNIDROIT convention on the protection of cultural property2. Such studies, though important, fail to reconstitute the context surrounding the Hague Convention itself. It may seem self-evident that a 1954 treaty on this topic reflects the trauma provoked by the massive destruction of the two world wars. Yet a closer examination of UNESCO’s archives yields a somewhat more complex story in which horror of the last war and anxiety about the next combine to forge a document impregnated with utopian internationalism while improbably vaunting its own practicality. In the allotted space of this “letter,” I will confine myself to three points: the coincidence between the views of high-ranking UNESCO officials and those of members of the general public, the effort to concretize public interest in a juridical status equating monument protection with human rights, and the way the Hague Convention embodies an imperfect attempt to conceive of a future confict as manageable.
The Susceptibilities of Peoples
The fear of war, as well as the hope that the protection of monuments can somehow help mitigate its effects, is palpable in a letter to UNESCO from a young, Ukrainian-born architect writing from New York in 1949. Apollinary Osadca suggests that the organization create an international committee to protect monuments (something already under discussion, though apparently without his knowledge). In an English all the more touching for its errors, Osadca describes his preoccupation with the next war, with its unavoidable toll of destruction, as a kind of premonitory shame: “Shall we allow, that before our eyes are distructed the priceless architectural monuments, the acquisite [of] the mankind during some thousands of years? What shall we give on this place? What shall we leave to our children?”3 Ten years later, UNESCO’s Office of Museums and Monuments received a letter from a resident of Grosse Pointe, Michigan named Russell McGuire, who described himself as “intensely interested in the cause of artistic resoration and conservation.” Requesting more information about the office’s activities, McGuire asked, “Because France suffered so terribly as a result of World War II I would like to know if any of the fifty cities where cultural and historical property was damaged or destroyed have attempted to reconstructor restore the property, or was the ruble [sic] merely celared away and new structures erected?” He continued: “Tell me, were the museums, libraries, badly damaged by the War?”4
The sense of a profound connection between human populations and their most important cultural monuments, both fixed and mobile, is expressed most concisely in the preface by UNESCO’s second Director General, Jaime Torres Bodet, to a 1950 report on efforts undertaken internationally to protect historic monuments. “The terrible damage caused by the war,” he wrote,“has given the conservation of that heritage a special urgency: it is no longer merely a matter of safegarding culture; we are now concerned with the susceptibilities of the peoples, and their attachment to the glorious relics of their past.”5 This idea crystallized in an exchange between UNESCO’s legal counselor (conseiller juridique), Pierre Lebar, and the head of its Office of Museums and Monuments, Jan Karel Van der Haagen. In 1953 Lebar asked his colleague to draft a brief statement on monuments for an upcoming debate of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. Lebar reminded Van der Haagen that deliberations over the Human Rights Convention of 1948 had included discussion of so-caled “cultural genocide,” including the “systematic destruction or disuse of historic monuments and religious buildings, destruction or scattering of historic, artistic, or religious documents or artifacts and of objects used in religious observance.”6 Although the Human Rights Convention in the end eliminated the concept of cultural genocide, which legal advisers considered too vague, the problem of such destruction remained among the proeccupations of the commission7. Van der Haagen observed that for what would become the 1954 Hague Convention, UNESCO was concerned less with “the value that some objects have for a particular group” than with “cultural property as such,” whether or not still in use, “considering them all as integral parts of universal cultural heritage.” He proposed that a future treaty on cultural genocide contain a provision that “the right to enjoyment of places of worship and of cultural heritage will be affirmed in a separate treaty.”8 The 1954 Convention thus represented for UNESCO a way to preserve its own authority (even if it was chiefly moral) over the issue of cultural preservation while establishing a very visible link to the already prominent issue of human rights.
A visible emblem
For all their limitations, the Hague Convention and the discussions from which it emerged do have the merit of posing significant questions about the importance we attach to cultural artifacts and their role as signs of – to use Walter Benjamin’s famous pairing – both civilization and barbarism. Article 19 of the treaty makes clear that it applies to “conflicts not of an international character” binding both sides of civil wars to its terms and offering UNESCO assistance to protect heritage threatened by such conflicts12. One can hardly reproach the drafters of the Convention for not anticipating that, more than half a century later, cultural heritage would itself become the direct rather than collateral target of some groups – groups that, not coincidentally, blur the very boundaries between national and international. During the 2014 conflict in Syria and Iraq, an article from the New York Times suggested that the destruction of monuments such as the tomb of Jonah in Mosul has provoked a profound outrage that might prompt civilian opposition to the forces responsible for this loss13. Another, from the online Artnet News, struggles to reconcile dismay over the destruction of monuments with sympathy for human victims:
In the town of Sinjar, which also fell under attack, a number of shrines sacred to the Yazidis, a monotheistic religion related to Zoroastrianism, have been destroyed. Although the Conflict Antiquities blog has reported that the Sherfedin Shrine, the most sacred Yazidi site, and the Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir are still safe, others, such as the Shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, are no more. The human casualties have been far greater, with an estimated 10,000–40,000 Yazidis who escaped the ISIS massacre in town now stranded without food or water on a nearby mountain, according to the Daily Beast14.
We are all caught in the same dilemma.
1 Tom Mashberg, “Arts Beat: Cultural Preservation Groups Ask Obama to Protect Syrian Heritage Sites,” New York Times, 11 September 2013, also available at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/11/cultural-preservation-groups-ask-obama-to-protect-syrian-heritage-sites/.
2 See, e.g., Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P, 2006), chapitre 5.
3 Archives de l’Unesco (herafter AU), Registry Cultural Property files, 2nd series 069: 7 “..66,” letter from A. Osadca, 17 June 1949. All subsequent references to AU are to this series.
4 AU, letter from Russell McGuire, 3 August 1959.
5 “Message de M. Jaime Torres Bodet, Directeur général de l’Unesco,” Museum 3: 1 (1950), 6, text published in both French and English.
6 AU, Pierre Lebar to van der Haagen and Edward Carter (head of the Library Division), 14 March 1953, with draft of memorandum to Jean Thomas, director of the Department of Cultural Activities.
8 AU, van der Haagen to Lebar, 16 March 1953.
9 Jiri Toman, The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict: Commentary on the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocol, signed on 14 May 1954 in The Hague, and on other instruments of international law concerning such protection (Aldershot and Paris: Dartmouth/UNESCO, 1996), 23-24.
10 AU, van der Haagen toTorres Bodet, 16 March 1951.
11 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-L_ID=13637&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, consulted 6 August 2014.
12 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-L_ID=13637&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, consulted 9 August 2014.
13 Tim Arango, “Tears, and Anger, as Militants Destroy Iraq City’s Relics,” New York Times, 31 July 2014.
14 Sarah Cascone, “Are More Monuments under Threat from ISIS?” Artnet News, 8 August 2014, http://news.artnet.com/art-world/are-more-monuments-under-threat-from-isis-75383, consulted 9 August 2014.