Making the Case for Protecting Cultural Heritage under the Alien Tort Statute

On July 29, 1990, Moses Thomas, then-commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia, ordered his troops to massacre nearly 600 unarmed men, women, and children taking refuge in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church from the country’s civil war. For nearly three decades, Thomas and his forces evaded accountability despite the massacre being one of the most horrific attacks on civilians in the country’s history.

Twenty-eight years later, on February 12, 2018, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a case in U.S. federal court on behalf of four Liberian citizens who survived the church massacre by hiding under church pews and dead bodies while their loved ones were murdered around them.

In the suit, the survivors alleged several claims for war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which confers jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts over claims of international law violations brought by non-nationals. In one claim, the plaintiffs allege that Moses Thomas had committed a war crime by intentionally directing attacks against a building dedicated to religion. CJA’s case against Thomas marks the first time such a claim has been brought under the ATS.

The intentional attacking or destruction of religious property—a form of cultural heritage—is as much a human rights violation as the physical destruction of a people. Nonetheless, this form of violence is on the rise throughout the world, occurring both in times of armed conflict and peace, systematically and sporadically.

In the last decade alone, Sufi religious and historic sites have been destroyed and graves desecrated in Libya; cultural and religious sites, artifacts, and manuscripts have been destroyed during the occupation of northern Mali; temples, monasteries, shrines, and millenniums-old sites, such as Palmyra, have been destroyed in the Syrian Arab Republic; Coptic churches and monasteries in Egypt, Jewish sites in Tunisia, and hundreds of shrines belonging to the Sufi sect of Islam across Northern Africa have all been targeted and destroyed. This list of incidents—incidents that have had a profound effect on cultural and religious communities globally—is in no way exhaustive.

Such deliberate destruction of cultural heritage violates numerous human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the freedom to take part in cultural life. Intentionally attacking cultural and religious property also is in violation of international humanitarian law—though the targeted nature of recent attacks shows, in many instances, that what once were protected structures during armed conflict have now become strategic military targets. Such acts of destruction additionally violate many States’ treaty obligations under several binding international legal documents.

Despite the extensive legal framework aimed at protecting such cultural and religious property, accountability for their destruction is slow or wholly unpursued. CJA’s case may thus lay the groundwork for one viable avenue to change this tide. The question, however, is whether the claim alleged by CJA for the destruction of religious property meets the legal thresholds for cognizability under the ATS established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Continue reading