On Preemptive Cultural Property Preservation: Interview with Peter Stone

On Preemptive Cultural Property Preservation: Interview with Peter Stone

. 9 min read

Peter Stone is the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University in the UK. He is also the elected President of the Blue Shield, the independent, impartial, neutral, and not-for-profit international NGO dedicated to the protection of heritage in the event of armed conflict or following disaster. Stone has written and worked extensively on heritage preservation across the globe.

In the introduction of your book, The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, you talk about how many heritage professionals, yourself included, have sacrificed so much time and effort to the cause of preserving cultural heritage. Why do you think cultural heritage preservation is so important, especially compared to other concerns that arise when conflict or disasters happen? What special role does it play for society?

There are, in a conflict or following a disaster, immediate and urgent issues, and long-term and equally urgent issues. The immediate, urgent issues are, of course, looking after people, protecting civilians, etc. So, people first—always. But the longer-term issue is cultural—and I tend to use the phrase “cultural property,” just because that’s the phrase in writing in the 1954 Hague Convention. By that, we mean tangible and intangible heritage as we would refer to it today, and in many instances, what the West would call “natural heritage.” In many other parts of the world, there is no distinction between cultural or natural.

For the Blue Shield and me, that cultural property—that heritage—gives individuals and communities a sense of place, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity, and contributes to their well-being and their dignity. Our argument is that by protecting cultural property, what we are doing is helping to either maintain or create healthy, peaceful, stable, secure, and sustainable communities. It’s on those communities that peaceful societies can be built. And that's the objective of everybody who is involved in a disaster or conflict. They want those peaceful societies at the end of the process.

So, you can use cultural property as a great positive for reconciliation after a conflict, for identification of who belongs in an area, etc. But also, it has a double-headed blade. It also identifies who does not belong, and who is excluded. It can be used—and has been not infrequently used—as a reason for going to war, for a weapon in war, and for a target in war or conflict. So, the community has to understand that heritage may be used in both of those ways: as a positive, but also potentially as a negative. It's in preparation that we can begin to protect from the negative.

You have said that preemptive preservation is crucial to preserving heritage. Are there places we should be enacting those precautionary measures now? What do those measures entail, and what can be done to encourage and support countries and museums to make these preparations?

Absolutely, there are things that could be done now. [They] should be done by every high contracting party to the 1954 Hague Convention, and the states parties to the two protocols of the Convention in 1954 and 1999. Protection of heritage is also in the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions in 1997. So, all parties or countries who have signed up to those [should be enacting precautionary measures]. [Protection of heritage] is also in the Rome Statute. So, it's there in a plethora of specific international law, both international humanitarian law [and] also criminal law with the Rome Statute.

Many of those lay down their own issues about what should be done, but the majority just refer back to the ‘54 Convention. In the ’54 Convention, there is fairly clear guidance, especially in the second protocol, as to what countries should do. In general, countries should prepare by having a good inventory of all the cultural property that they want protected, if there is a conflict or following a disaster. Very few countries have actually even got that. And there is no point in simply saying, “Okay, we have a national inventory of heritage sites, or museums, or whatever. And we just want to transpose that.” That will be, in almost every case, much too big a list to be protected during conflict.

What the heritage sector needs to be aware of are the constraints and responsibilities of the other two key sectors. They are obviously what we call the “uniform sector,” or the armed forces, but also border and customs organizations, the police, other emergency services, and the humanitarians. We can't just say, “there are 500,000 sites on our heritage list, [and] all of those must be protected during a conflict.” That's impossible, and you couldn't fight a war [under those constraints]. You have to have a realistic list. You have to have ideas about who's going to protect [these sites]. Have you got enough material to pack up a museum collection, for example, or an archive or library or an art collection? Do you know where you're going to safely secure that material? Is it going to be in the basement? Or is it going to be somewhere else, firstly, in the same city or town, or in the same country—or are you going to organize for it to go somewhere else? All of these questions need answers. And the answers have to be thought about long in advance of any conflict.

Then in Article Seven of the Hague Convention, there are specific responsibilities [for] the armed forces of any country that has ratified the convention. [These are] very simply that everybody in the armed forces should know about the value of protecting cultural property, but also that the armed forces should develop a capability for liaising with other people about cultural property protection. Very few countries in the world have actually done any or all of that. That's simply because everybody says, “We're not going to go to war. There's not going to be an invasion,” as the Ukrainians said. “And therefore, we're not going to properly prepare.” As Ukraine found, that meant that they lost a lot more of their heritage than they would have, had they prepared.

What can we do in places like Ukraine, that have experienced disaster and conflict but did not take those necessary precautions?

Well, we can try and retrofit everything that they should have done in the first place. That becomes very difficult because as has happened with Ukraine, they are very heavily involved in fighting a conflict, and therefore don't have the time or the capability to implement what are secondary issues of protecting cultural property. If you get to [the point of] a conflict breaking out, it's almost too late. But there are things that can be done. You can try and find packaging. You can try and find somewhere safe to put your collection. You can try and get sandbags to put around monuments to try [to] protect the monuments. You can put into place protective measures for paintings, murals on the wall, [and] frescoes. All of those things can be done. But the question is, have you trained to do [that] in peacetime? Do you have the expertise to do [that] very quickly in a conflict situation? In almost every instance, the answer to that is, “No, we're about 20 percent ready.”

Returning to your book, you said that although working with the military is key in minimizing damage to cultural property, doing so raises questions about “legitimizing war” as heritage conservation experts. Can you talk more about how you view the role of military and cultural preservation?

When Joanne and I co-edited that book, it was published in early 2008, which meant we were preparing it at the end of 2006 and through 2007. I first got involved in this work, in a large way, in 2003. So it was fairly early in my time. It was before the Blue Shield had really been established as a feasible organization. So let me just take you back a little bit in history and explain about the Blue Shield a little bit. Then I'll answer your question.

The Blue Shield was envisaged by those people who were drafting the 1954 Hague Convention. In an early speech, the then Director General of UNESCO, said, “We must understand that we are not only here to draft a convention, but to establish a new organization that will be, and I quote, ‘the Red Cross for cultural property.’” There was an ideal that is in the minutes of those meetings and in publications immediately following the ‘54 Convention, that not only the heritage community, but the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) expected an organization, which they referred to as the Blue and White Shield, to be created. That didn't happen at the time. I presume that was just because everybody was exhausted from the Second World War, there was no spare money, and it just slipped off the agenda.

So, it was only created in 1996 by the four international organizations for museums, monuments and sites, libraries, and archives. At that point, it was a very small organization that comprised four people. That was the CEOs or the directors of those four heritage organizations. They kept it very small because they thought that would mean it could work very quickly and act very quickly. And to an extent, that was true. But, for example, all they were able to do in 2003 was write to presidents Saddam Hussein and George Bush and Prime Minister Blair to say “please don't damage any of the heritage in Iraq.” That wasn't the most effective of contributions. There had been some, but little, work done in terms of training and preparation by the Blue Shield as it existed then. The one thing that they had done was [to] enable the creation of national committees of the Blue Shield.

But in 2016, there was a new version of the Blue Shield, which established it as a broader organization. And that was great. Then in 2017, for the first time, there was some funding available for the Blue Shield to actually be proactive and do work. Between 2017 and today in 2023, the Blue Shield has become, in the words of a senior adviser to UNESCO, a major global player in the protection of cultural property. That has been possible mainly through the funding given through the UNESCO chair that I hold at Newcastle University. But that is short term funding. We obviously need to build up.

The way we envisage the Blue Shield now is a triangle set within a circle. The triangle has, as all good triangles [do], three points. Those three points are the heritage sector, the uniform sector, and the humanitarian sector. The space within the triangle is where those three all work together to try to achieve their own goals, but also to protect cultural property. All of those goals are similar. In Blue Shield language, they are the maintenance or creation of those healthy, peaceful, stable, secure, [and] sustainable communities. And that's what the military wants, that's what the humanitarians want, because they can all go home as soon as you have those. We try to work together. We try to work within that triangle with those other colleagues, [and] that’s beginning to happen.

Then that triangle is set within the broader circle. There are three key elements within that circle. There is the political context, [which] identifies whether or not heritage is going to be a reason for a conflict, or a weapon in the conflict, or a target in the conflict, or whether all sides are trying to protect it. So, there's that political context, which impinges significantly on what we can do within the triangle. There is then the legal context as to what any party to the conflict can actually deal with—if they have ratified the Convention, if they haven't ratified something, or whatever—what they are bound by an international law to do. Finally, the media context is increasingly important. From my perspective, the coalition that was created to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 failed dismally with the media context. They lost that media war with extreme groups that came in and developed the whole situation in Iraq. The loss of that media war enabled the re-emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and provided the oxygen for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State. Had the coalition been more astute and more aware, then that may not have happened in that way.

[In] 2002, when the coalition was planning to invade Iraq, there were six think tanks created in Washington to plan for post-Saddam Iraq. One of them had a subcommittee on culture, the whole of culture, which is reputed to have never met. On that basis, no combat troops of the coalition had any orders to protect any cultural property. As we all know, the National Museum was looted. The National Library was looted. The National Archive was looted. All the regional museums were looted. Most university libraries and other archives and libraries were looted. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of archaeological sites were looted. That was partly—not entirely, but partly—down to the fact that there was no conception of the importance of culture, and in particular religious culture, in Iraq.

In 2006, the Iraqi population, which had welcomed coalition troops in the majority, were increasingly fed up with the presence of coalition troops. The fact that still no coalition troops were protecting any major religious or cultural sites meant that it was possible for a group to go in and blow up the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the most important Shia Muslim sites in the world. That meant that the politicians that ran the coalition thought that troops had to stay in Iraq for what turned out to be a further five years, taking five years’ worth of casualties, five years’ worth of fatalities, but five years of losing that media war. And five years ago, that enabled, as I [said] the reemergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and [provided] the oxygen for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State. Now, the Islamic State isn't going to go away, even though it's been badly wounded. And that's where the political situation impinges on the work in the triangle. The work in the triangle can't succeed if politicians haven't made the decision to say, “cultural property, religious property, whatever is going to be important here—we need to take it into consideration, and you guys in uniform need to protect it.”

William Mao spoke with Professor Peter Stone on Oct. 10, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.