Should The Destruction Of Ancient Monuments Be Considered A War Crime?

The Islamic State’s continuing destruction of ancient monuments has sparked a call for changing the legal definition of war crimes.

Should The Destruction Of Ancient Monuments Be Considered A War Crime?

In the past several months, in addition to continuing an ethnic cleansing of the Assyrian populations of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has burned down Iraq’s Mosul library, which housed more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts; burned churches and Muslim shrines; and, most recently, destroyed ancient Mesopotamian sculptures in Iraq’s Mosul Museum, including winged bull deities from the ninth century B.C. that once guarded the Assyrian king’s palace. The vandals, who released a video of their pillaging online, claim these ancient works promote idolatry.


Over at the Wall Street Journal, art critic Eric Gibson argues that such destruction of cultural heritage should legally be considered a war crime, punishable by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. “Islamic State is waging a war on cultural heritage that makes a mockery of existing protections enshrined in law,” Gibson writes. He goes on:

The laws of war were changed after World War II in response to the genocidal impulses of the Nazis—the 1945 London Convention introduced the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Today they need to be changed again in hopes of stopping the current onslaught, or at least preventing subsequent ones.

There is nothing to be lost by adding increased protection for cultural heritage under international humanitarian law–such a revision wouldn’t diminish existing protections of human life, but would only help curb an escalating war on ancient history, Gibson argues.

How is cultural heritage protected under the current laws of war?

As of now, cultural heritage is protected by the United Nations’ 1954 Hague Convention, which prohibits “using monuments and sites for military purposes and harming or misappropriating cultural property in any way. The presence of a distinctive blue shield indicates cultural property placed under the Convention’s protection.” But a blue shield isn’t going to help stop a group whose stated purpose is bringing about the apocalypse.

How would current laws have to change to make destruction of cultural heritage a war crime?


Making the Islamic State’s actions against cultural heritage punishable under international humanitarian law would require updating 1945’s London Charter, which shaped the current definition of war crimes. This charter currently prohibits “plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.” Cultural heritage is implied here, but, as Gibson argues, it should be specifically included in order to help address the grim situation at hand.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that apocalypse-mongering terrorists would be deterred by a strongly worded charter. But such a legal revision would at least acknowledge the seriousness of cultural destruction, and could potentially help ensure justice for these crimes in an international court of law.

Head to the Wall Street Journal to read the full article.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.