Protection of cultural heritage in times of war and peace.
It is imperative that we preserve our cultural heritage throughout the storms of life. Doing so during times of peace is probably easier than during times of war, but it is also easier to lose traces of a culture during conflict.
Unfortunately, cultural heritage is often a victim of violence and wars, regardless of era. This can be seen in Qin Shihuang’s mass destruction of historians’ records and execution of the scholars who were knowledgeable in those philosophies. When the world exploded into war more than two thousand years later, cultural heritage was also destroyed, with the destruction of the cathedral at Rheims and the burning of the medieval library at Leuven. Today, cultural heritage is still a silent victim of conflict in the Arab world, despite the world having come a long way in realizing the importance of preserving one’s culture.
Actively protecting cultural heritage may seem like a recent movement. It did take millennia from when wars first began for people to realize that there should be a way to protect cultural heritage in wartime. However, the idea was not so recent. Even a couple of centuries ago, there were already initiatives started for this purpose. For instance, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, with the First Hague Peace Conference, decreed in 1899 that it was illegal for artifacts, monuments and educational or arts institutions to be seized, destroyed or intentionally damaged. Plundering or confiscating of a person’s private property was prohibited. Moreover, museums, hospitals and historic places were to be protected during times of war, as long as they were not being used for “military purposes”.
What, then, should happen to the protection of cultural heritage when countries are at war? It seems that we have not reached a resolution to this problem as of yet. Armed forces may not conduct such large-scale or blatant destruction of cultural heritage these days, but in many ways, cultural heritage is still suffering. When people perish in war, their cultural knowledge perishes with them. This is especially so for aspects of cultural heritage that live on not in tangible works but in stories, practiced art and knowledge.
Revised versions of the decree protecting cultural heritage surfaced, such as the American Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions, stating that cultural properties formed the “cultural treasure of peoples” and should be respected and protected, regardless of whether there was war or peace. After the second World War, several countries in conjunction with UNESCO began to develop the protection of cultural heritage even further. Cultural heritage became not only protected, but also a victim against which one could be held legally accountable.
In 2004, the former Yugoslav naval officer Miodrag Jokić was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for destroying the old town of Dubrovnik by firing hundreds of mortars at it towards the end of 1991. This sentence marked a monumental decision as the first ever conviction for the crime of deliberately destroying cultural heritage.
Another was to come in 2016, marking another milestone of the first time the destruction of cultural heritage was considered a war crime. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a Malian jihadist, was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment for destroying ten religious sites in Timbuktu in 2012. This outrageous destruction alerted activists all around the world, pressing the International Criminal Court to take action. Shortly after, the United Nations included the protection of a country’s cultural heritage in their mission.
People have begun to slowly restore previously destroyed heritage sites. Today, the United Nations’ resolution covers the full extent of possible threats cultural heritage could face, regardless of geographical location and whether the perpetrators are a known terrorist group or not. Placing such a heavy importance on conserving our cultural heritage goes a long way, but prevention is still better than cure. Ultimately, it would be better for people not to destroy cultural heritage in the first place. No amount of punishment could restore the damage done to pieces of our history.
When it comes to peacetime, it is first and foremost imperative that people cultivate a desire to learn about their cultural heritage. This thirst for knowledge will lead people to find out more about that culture, which will then lead to an appreciation for the culture.
However, it is easy to miss a step in this cycle, breaking the tradition of how cultural heritage is passed from one generation to the next. For instance, we may find that it is often the older generation that stands religiously by their cultural traditions. Many young people are increasingly estranged from their ancestral culture, whether by choice or by circumstance. This is viewed from two different perspectives – the elders may feel disappointed that less and less people are in touch with their backgrounds, while peers may view cultural heritage as nothing more than a baggage that should be left behind if one is to advance in life.
While it may be impractical for all of us to stick to every bit of our cultures, we should still have a knowledge of it. Encouraging people to embrace their cultural heritage begins with exposing them to it and cultivating in them a desire to learn. It is important to emphasize the sense of belonging and unity in a community of people that come from the same heritage. The community could organize events such as festivals, feasts, gatherings and enrichment classes for people to immerse themselves in customary cultural activities. This can help to increase everyone’s enjoyment in appreciating their heritage.
In addition, cultivating a love for one’s cultural heritage is more effective when it begins at an early age. Early education is key to planting a desire to learn in young children. Children can learn about the struggles their ancestors faced and how they overcame each obstacle to result in such a long-running culture. To promote harmony and understanding of other cultures, education should not emphasize on the importance of any one culture but instead teach about many different cultures and how they have each contributed to human history. It will also be helpful if households encourage the young ones to carry on family tradition. Cultural heritage can be imparted to the next generation in the form of folklore and stories, recipes for cultural cuisine, traditional clothing, cultural crafts, observing special occasions, and speaking a native language, to name a few. If cultural activities are a part of a child’s life while they are growing up, they would probably get used to it and enjoy looking back on their childhood memories later on in life.
Hopefully, people continue to cherish their cultural heritage and take it on themselves to pass on knowledge of tradition. It is never too late for one to become interested in learning more about cultural heritage. These days, we have a wealth of information readily available to supplement any thirst for knowledge, and we should make full use of the resources we have, including our elders while they are still around.
Author: Kelly Felder