25.02.2015 | International Review of Law

Syria’s world cultural heritage and individual criminal responsibility

by Marina Lostal


In a recent speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry labeled the destruction of heritage in Syria „a purposeful final insult” which is “stealing the soul of millions.” He referred to the devastation in the Ancient City of Aleppo (a declared world heritage site), and tithe extensive looting of Apamea and Dura Europos (on the Syrian Tentative List of world heritage) as a tragedy for the Syrian people and the rest of the world, and remarked: “How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization.”

World cultural heritage is, by definition, of “outstanding universal value” and thus constitutes the finest category of tangible cultural property on land. As such, what happens to Syrian world heritage sites is often referred to separately from the rest of cultural objects. For example, a common statement by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova, and Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi concerning Syria’s cultural property drew attention first and foremost to the fact that “[w]orld heritage sites ha[d] suffered considerable and sometimes irreversible damage.” Likewise, the UN Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014) called on all parties to the Syrian conflict to “save Syria’s rich societal mosaic and cultural heritage, and take appropriate steps to ensure the protection of Syria’s World Heritage Sites.” In the same vein, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently published two reports based on satellite imagery assessing the current status of Syrian declared and tentative world heritage sites respectively.
Based on the information provided by different sources, it is safe to say some world heritage sites, or at least some of its components, are irrevocably lost. “How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing,” Kerry said. But what can be done based on the current legal framework as applied to Syria?

One way to react to the alleged looting, damage and destruction of Syrian cultural heritage is through individual criminal responsibility. As we shall see, several of the international conventions to which Syria is a party introduce the possibility of instituting criminal proceedings for those that commit cultural heritage violations. To this we need to add the Syrian Antiquities Law of 26 October 1963 passed under Decree, Law No. 222 (Syrian Antiquities Law) and the Chautauqua Blueprint, a draft statute for a would-be Syrian Extraordinary Tribunal, both of which include crimes concerning cultural objects. However, despite this web of legal instruments, the analysis of the cultural property obligations applicable to the Syrian armed conflict shows that the basis to prosecute those who have looted, damaged or destroyed Syrian world cultural heritage sites are either absent, due to the overall lack of implementation of international cultural heritage conventions, or insufficient, due to the fact that international criminal law is in its infancy. For example the article of the Chautauqua Blueprint concerning cultural objects is unable to express the facts and degrees of wrongdoing when crimes involve world heritage sites. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, led UNESCO and some scholars to espouse the notion of crimes against culture or crimes against the common heritage of humanity. It appears that this so-called crime did little more than express the general outcry of the international community at the time. This article concludes suggesting that, now that these acts of destruction have become systematic in the Arab and Sahel regions—and thus we may speak of a “Bamiyasation” phenomenon—the concept of crime against cultural heritage should be carried through in order to solve or at least reduce the current accountability gap.

This research article was written by Marina Lostal as "Syria’s world cultural heritage and individual criminal responsibility" and published by International Review of Law in 2015.