Using Open-Source Investigations to Protect and Preserve Cultural Heritage

For millennia, cultural heritage has been a target of war and conflict. Around AD 330, Emperor Constantine stole a bronze set of Greek horses to place in his new capital. Despite modern laws and international norms that protect cultural rights and prohibit their destruction and removal, cultural heritage continues to be a target in conflict. In 2015, ISIS destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, including the main Temple of Bel.

Cultural heritage includes both tangible heritage, such as paintings, sculptures, monuments, and archaeological sites; and intangible heritage, such as traditions, rituals, and performing arts. The right to culture is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Hague Convention. As the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights stated, “Cultural heritage is significant in the present, both as a message from the past and as a pathway to the future. Viewed from a human rights perspective, it is important not only in itself, but also in relation to its human dimension, in particular its significance for individuals and communities and their identity and development processes.”

In 2012, a jihadist group, Ansar Dine, targeted mosques, mausoleums and other cultural heritage sites in Mali in an attempt to rid the area of a Sufi-influenced form of Islam practiced in the region. The former UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights condemned this destruction, explaining the importance of cultural heritage: “‘The destruction of tombs of ancient Muslim saints in Timbuktu, a common heritage of humanity, is a loss for us all, but for the local population it also means the denial of their identity, their beliefs, their history and their dignity.’”

Holding the perpetrators of cultural heritage destruction accountable

The use of open source investigations to document and verify human rights abuses is becoming a common strategy in the human rights field. The process of identifying, collecting, and/or analyzing open source information as part of an investigative process includes both verifying and authenticating abuses, as well as documenting evidence of abuse. Open source investigations use news articles, blogs and websites, social media posts, satellite imagery, maps, statistical information, geolocation, reverse image searches, and other techniques to document and verify evidence of human rights abuses. For instance, in the case brought in the International Criminal Court against al Mahdi, a member of Ansar Dine, the prosecution provided evidence of videos of the destruction and a geolocation report. Al Mahdi ultimately pled guilty to the charges of “intentionally directing attacks against 10 buildings of a religious and historical character in Timbuktu, Mali.”

Open source investigations as a cultural heritage preservation tool

Open source investigations not only provide a tool for holding perpetrators of cultural heritage destruction accountable, but also for preserving and memorializing what is destroyed or in danger of being destroyed. Refugees often lose aspects of their cultural heritage. Moving to a new country can mean loss of language, education, and traditions. Tangible cultural heritage items, such as books and art, often must be left behind when migrating or fleeing.

The information gathered during an open source investigation for accountability purposes can also be used to help preserve cultural heritage that has been destroyed or threatened. The evidence gathered could further be used to inform educational materials on cultural traditions, rites, and performing arts, in addition to restoration and recreation efforts for tangible cultural heritage.

For instance, in Timbuktu, local craftsmen have already reconstructed many of the shrines destroyed by consulting old photographs. Organizations, such as CyArk, have recreated destroyed landmarks using 3D printing and virtual reality. While CyArk captures the likeness of landmarks using cutting edge technology and the local craftsmen in Timbuktu used old photographs, they could also use such open source investigation sources as news articles, maps, and social media posts of landmarks to assist in documentation, restoration and recreation efforts.

Open source investigations research can and should support and bolster these efforts to preserve destroyed or threatened cultural heritage for future generations.


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