Protecting endangered cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq: the role of international organizations and governments.

Position:Proceedings of the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: Charting New Frontiers in International Law - Discussion

This panel was convened at 11:00 a.m., on Thursday, March 31, 2016, by its moderator, Roger O'Keefe of University College London Faculty of Laws, who introduced the panelists: Corine Wegener of ICOM US, Cultural Heritage Preservation, Smithsonian Institution; Michael Danti of the Boston University Cultural Heritage Initiatives; Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University College of Law; and Haider Ala Hamoudi of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.


Welcome, everyone. My name is Roger O'Keefe. I am here as the moderator of this session on "Protecting Endangered Cultural Heritage in Syria and Iraq: The Role of International Organizations and Governments." To be perfectly honest, we may be going beyond governments as such to public-private arrangements and perhaps even, in some cases, NGOs, but the focus is definitely on the institutional.

We will see that, as you know, there has been distressingly widespread destruction and plunder of cultural property in Syria and Iraq over the past few years. Of course, these are not the only places. Just a few days ago, the charges were confirmed against a man, Mr. alMahdi, who is charged before the International Criminal Court with the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines in Mali. There has been lots of destruction in Yemen too. But we will be focusing on Syria and Iraq, and the focus will be institutional.

Why institutional? Despite what some--I think you are supposed to say "underinformed," rather than "ill-informed"--commentators might say, there is nothing wrong with the law as such. The law is as good as we are going to get it. It applies in its core regards to nonstate actors. In noninternational armed conflicts of the nature that we are talking about, ISIS and various other groups are bound by the relevant obligations. That is not the question. All of this is supplemented by individual criminal responsibility and, in relevant instances, state responsibility. Nor are we ever likely to get additional norms in this regard of a conventional nature, at least in the area of the laws of armed conflict, given that it was only in 1999 that the third purpose-dedicated convention on the subject, the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention, was adopted. We do not want to focus on the law. The fact of the matter is that you will always find people who do not care about the law. Law has purchase only when those bound by it believe that abiding with the law has positive value. If they do not believe that, then, unless you are going to have a policeman on every person's shoulder, the law will be broken. People are murdered every day, but we do not say that the law of murder is somehow to blame.

So, the focus will be institutional. How can we reinforce the push for compliance? How can we help well-intentioned state and nonstate actors to implement their obligations? Is there best practice that we can encourage in this respect and, indeed, best practice that may go beyond the law? The institutions in question may be intergovernmental organizations. They may be states and their various organs and instrumentalities. They may be private initiatives. We have here today people able to speak to a range of these different perspectives.

The speakers will introduce themselves in due course, but they are, in brief, Michael Danti of Cultural Heritage Initiatives at Boston University; Patty Gerstenblith, who probably needs no introduction, from DePaul University College of Law; Haider Ala Hamoudi from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law; and Corine Wegener from ICOM US but also involved in her day job in Cultural Heritage Preservation at the Smithsonian Institution.

We will have a brief painting of the picture through a slide show prepared by Anne-Marie Carstens from Georgetown. Each of the participants will then introduce himself or herself with a brief introduction of the projects in which they are involved, after which we will get into some hard-core questioning. So without further ado I ask for the cameras to roll, as it were, with our introductory slide show.

I must say it is a great pleasure to see so many people interested in this area. When I did my PhD on this, my mother asked me why was I doing it. Wasn't it a waste of time? Her family is from the area around Dubrovnik and I assured her it was very important and very, very useful. I would have to say that, as in most things in my life, my mother may have proved correct.

What I will do now is ask our contributors briefly to introduce themselves and the projects with which they have been involved before we launch into discussion. So perhaps, Cori, you could kick it off.


Sure. Thanks, Roger. I am Cori Wegener, and I am the Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer at the Smithsonian Institution, and I head the Smithsonian's Cultural Rescue Initiative. Wearing my International Council of Museums (ICOM) hat, I am the chair of ICOM's Disaster Risk Management Committee, and ICOM does a number of programs around the world, where we try to raise awareness for museums--and other collecting institutions as well, but our primary focus for ICOM is museums, about disaster risk reduction and management, but also about illicit traffic of antiquities and other types of collections. The mandate for ICOM is broad and wide. I am also on the board of ICOM US, here in the United States, and we are trying to echo some of those themes for our membership here in the United States.

A little bit about the Cultural Rescue Initiative at the Smithsonian. We have always been interested in the preservation of cultural heritage at the Smithsonian over our long history. We have nineteen museums, nine research centers, and a National Zoo to take care of, and so we have a lot of expertise at the Smithsonian to do this kind of work. But it was not until 2010 when Smithsonian decided to really do that as an outreach project after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, where we did an 18-month project with our Haitian colleagues to save their collections after that devastating earthquake.

I came on board at the Smithsonian in 2012 right about the time when we had been experiencing the Arab Spring in 2011, and as a member of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, I had worked on dealing with a no-strike list. I think Patty is going to talk about that a little bit more, but we were focused on Syria and Iraq and enabling our colleagues both in government and a variety of international organizations to create no-strike lists or lists, that included information about the locations of World Heritage sites and their content, but also for things that did not necessarily rise to the level of tracking them as a World Heritage site--religious sites, museums, libraries, archives, and sites of that nature.

Smithsonian became involved with the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and several other organizations doing this kind of work in 2013, when we created the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project. If we do have PowerPoint, I have a couple of images I would just like to show about that project.

We have done some training programs working with members of the Syrian opposition in nongovernment-controlled parts of Syria doing training with them on how to handle evacuation and salvage of damage collections, restoring and packaging collections for anything between medium-and long-term storage.

This is my colleague, Salam al-Kuntar, who is Syrian, but now is a refugee scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. This is one of my colleagues from the Smithsonian doing training on emergency packing and creating of collections, and we really do work with our Syrian colleagues on what their priorities are in the areas that they are working in, and so we were asked to help them with the stabilization in place of the Ma'arra Museum in Idlib Province.

After the training, we provided materials, tools, and some small funding, because even though we have sanctions against the Syrian government, there is an exception for being able to work with colleagues in Syria specifically on cultural heritage projects, and so here, you can see that they spend a lot of time stabilizing that museum, these mosaic collections, with sandbagging. Another project that we work on in Iraq is the Iraqi Institute for Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, working with a number of organizations, and you can see a pattern here. These are public-private partnerships where you go to find the expertise that you need amongst partners. This is a project that is really funded by the U.S. Department of State from its inception and continues to also be funded by the Kurdish regional government and the national government of Iraq and brings together colleagues from throughout Iraq to learn more about the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage. Here we are doing a disaster training exercise last summer in August. Boy, it is hot in Erbil in August.

Here they are documenting some of these damaged collections--these are not real collections; these are fake collections that we used for the exercise--and packaging them up and documenting them.

Another part of our program is a research project that we have a National Science Foundation grant for to create a data set. It is kind of complicated in my five minutes that I have here, but we are creating a data set about the destruction of cultural heritage and armed conflict with Syria and Iraq as a case study. The idea is that this data set can be used by scholars in the future to study other conflicts using the same methodology that we have used to be able to code the destruction of heritage. If you want to know more about that, look on our partner's website, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and you can get a better idea of what we are trying to accomplish here.

A lot of groups are...

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