An often neglected but fundamentally important victim of conflict is the physical manifestations of a community, a people, a nation—their heritage. The cultural heritage of France and Belgium was utterly devastated during World War I, epitomized by the burning of the medieval library at Leuven and destruction of the cathedral of Rheims. A century later conflicts in states such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria continue to be characterized by the destruction of cultural heritage. So how far have we come in protecting cultural heritage from the devastating effects of war? Over the past century, surprisingly far, and at the same time not quite far enough. International law to protect cultural heritage has developed reactively, responding to conflict and destruction after the fact in the hope that it will not be repeated. An understanding of this law, its strengths and its shortcomings, requires its contextualization within the conflicts of the past century.
When simmering tensions exploded into war in 1914, there were already some laws in place to protect cultural heritage. In 1899, at the initiative of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, the First Hague Peace Conference adopted a set of laws, updated in 1907, to create a regime that would regulate the conduct of war and hopefully encourage “lasting peace.” Inspired by the Liber Code drafted during the American Civil War to protect the heritage of the United States, and mindful of the destruction that befell Strasbourg and Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, the Convention Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land provided some rudimentary forms of protection for cultural heritage. This included prohibiting seizure, destruction and willful damage to institutions dedicated to education and the arts and sciences, as well as historic monuments and works of art themselves. Plunder in occupied territory was expressly forbidden, as was the confiscation of private property. Most important, states were required to take steps to avoid destroying museums, hospitals and historic monuments during sieges and bombardments as long as they were not being used for “military purposes.” This reflected a view that the law ought to reflect the realities of war and ought not to unduly restrict the military in the ultimate achievement of its objective. This concept of a military necessity exception to any rule that attempted to protect cultural heritage continues to bedevil the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflicts.
These rules proved inadequate to protect heritage during World War I. Not only was cultural heritage often used for military purposes, but the doctrine of military necessity justified the destruction and damage of numerous sites throughout Europe, including the library of Leuven and the cathedral at Rheims, as well as the 13th century church of St. Gervais, Whitby Abbey and the old royal palace in Belgrade. Nevertheless, the general principle that cultural heritage ought to receive protection appears to have been accepted by all belligerents, many of which took steps to avoid unnecessary destruction. That heritage was not free to be destroyed or plundered was reflected in the Treaty of Versailles, which required the restitution of identified cultural heritage back to the territory from which it came and restitution in kind, in the case of the library of Leuven, for cultural objects that were destroyed.