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.”Continue reading