Experts Decry British Complacency with Syrian Destruction

It's the most significant world power not to have signed the Hague Convention.

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site Photo: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons
Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site Photo: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

Over 100 British experts, lords, and members of Parliament have signed a letter decrying the United Kingdom’s failure to sign the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The letter was written by Nicholas Trench, the Earl of Clancarty, and published in Monday’s edition of the Telegraph and on their website.

As the letter points out, the UK is the most significant international power that has not yet signed the Hague Convention. The US signed the accord in 2009. It was initially formulated in 1954 in response to the vast destruction of and damage to sites of national and international cultural importance during the Second World War. Those losses, Trench points out, included: “Paintings by Van Gogh and Caravaggio; the St Petersburg amber room; and architecture such as St Mary’s Church, Lübeck, and the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino.”

Most readily, Trench was reportedly spurred to write by the vast destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria. Those have included all six UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country such as the Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle which was first built in the 11th century; Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo, formerly the world’s largest covered market; and the Islamic citadel of Palmyra; as well as vast portions of the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Bosra, all also considered World Heritage sites. Not only have these sites been damaged and destroyed but artifacts looted from them have also been used to continue funding the over three-year-long civil war.

Syria is far from alone. Other recent conflicts have damaged Timbuktu and other sites in Mali as well as various sites in Libya and Egypt. As Trench notes, Iraq was largely stripped of its museums’ many priceless artifacts by looters in the weeks following the fall of Saddam Husein during the US invasion in 2003. At the time, Britain announced that they would ratify the Hague Convention. “A decade later, we have yet to honour this commitment,” Trench writes, calling the, “continuing failure to ratify[…]mystifying.”

“It has all-party support,” he continues. And, “Protecting cultural property in conflict is seen by the Armed Forces as a “force multiplier” – something that makes their job easier.” Trench notes that following a 2008 bill, the government has repeatedly promised to ratify the convention at the next available parliamentary slot. With time left in the schedule this session, he suggests, why not now?

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