Protecting Archaeological Sites in Conflict Zones: What Is to be Done in Syria?

By: Lawrence Rothfield

The recent upsurge in high profile news stories, in Time and other mass media outlets, about the looting of archaeological sites in Syria has been accompanied by the usual public handwringing by archaeologists and heritage protection organizations. The terrible impact on the world’s cultural patrimony is bewailed, and the heads of UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund, and so on call upon the international community to stop the destruction. What is most depressing, for those of us who study the history of cultural heritage protection in times of armed conflict, is how similar these public statements are to those made in the runup to and the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thousands of looting pits pockmarking Iraq bear witness to how ineffectual those earlier pronouncements were, and yet the archaeological and heritage community continues to issue them.

Missing from those earlier pronouncements, and also largely absent from those being made now, are specific, pointed, and actionable steps that could and should be taken to minimize future damage from both military action and from civilian looting, in Syria and other future conflicts. Instead, advocates have been offering proposals that are vague and often unrealistic. Take, for example, the Huffington Post guest blog from Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, “Protecting Cultural Heritage: Lessons from the Syrian Conflict“:

The international community must do more to address the issue of protecting cultural patrimony during conflicts. Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate. The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army’s famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II.

Let’s take these one at a time.

“Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate.” Agreed, but the passive voice leaves unclear just who should be making such contingency plans, and no indication is given of what such plans might or should include. That is all the more disappointing given that Burnham contributed a chapter to Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, a volume which includes a number of planning recommendations by a range of experts. And since that book came out, we have learned more, from the experiences of Libya (where shepherds were permitted to graze their flocks on World Heritage sites in exchange for keeping guard there) and Cairo (where Egyptians formed a human chain to protect their museum), about how local citizens might be encouraged or enlisted in advance to be prepared to come to the aid of their cultural heritage when the going gets rough.

That sort of direct action, of course, involves risks, and in Syria today it would probably be too dangerous for it to make sense to ask locals to put their lives on the line at many sites. Even in Syria, however, some sites far from any fighting are now at risk of looting and might have been protected had heritage officials in Syria, and foreign archaeologists who are now shut out from the country, managed to develop local networks to be called upon. For the past few years, ICCROM has run a course intended to help professionals on the ground to do this sort of thing and take other similar steps. It would be helpful if the drumbeaters for international action explicitly called for more funding for such efforts.

“The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement.” That would be nice, since the enforcement mechanisms now attached to the Convention are, to put it mildly, weak. But again, no specifics are given, perhaps because it is unrealistic to expect 100 countries to agree on infringements on their sovereignty.

The deeper problem, however, is that even if enforcement mechanisms were stronger, enforcing Hague would be of little help in cases such as Syria, where the loophole of “military necessity” would get the Assad regime off the hook for most of the damage it is doing directly by shelling and assaulting sites, and where the other culpable party, the rebels, do not constitute a state (much less a state party to the Convention). The 1954 Hague Convention was designed to deal with the actions of armies battling each other on battlefields, not with irregular civil warfare conducted in the midst of population centers; it requires militaries to prevent their own troops from looting, but does not require them to take action to prevent civilians from looting during armed conflict situations.

“In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army’s famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II.” This is one suggestion I endorse, though it would have little impact on the kinds of conflicts we are seeing now. Remember, the Monuments Men were part of a gigantic military operation that was pushing an occupier out and setting up its own occupation, not a neutral body separating two warring parties, and they were able to protect sites from further military-related damage because they had the ear and support of military commanders. In principle, a UN-negotiated cease-fire might enable the carabinieri or other militarized cultural police to be dropped in to secure major sites, and developing a standing international force capable of joining in peacekeeping operations is an objective worth pursuing, especially because such a force might be able to do important work preventing looting by civilians. But that would have to be done very gingerly, since what counts as “neutral” to internationalists may appear very differently to nationalists, as we know from the fate of the carabinieri’s heritage protection units, who were driven out of Iraq after a number of these brave souls were killed by insurgents.

In any case, this is intervention after the fact. That is too late. What should heritage advocates be pushing for to dissuade or at least discourage both sides in Syria, or elsewhere, from fighting each other for control of militarily advantageous positions that also happen to be archaeological sites? And what more could be done to cut down on the looting of archaeological sites during these extended periods of peril?

Here are four suggestions:

  • Instead of merely appealing to the Hague Convention, archaeologists and heritage advocates should call directly for every government that is supporting one side in a conflict to use its leverage to make clear to those they support that if evidence emerges that they were the first to move onto a protected site there will be a cost to be paid in terms of reduced military assistance – and that if, on the contrary, sites are secured and protected, this good behavior will be rewarded.
  • Because evidence of infractions of the Hague Convention (or of good behavior) is not easy to come by and evaluate, heritage advocates should be calling for the development of new technologies capable of providing reliable and verifiable real-time monitoring of sites. This is an area where huge advances are easily imaginable. A college student recently captured nearly real-time video images from the edge of space using a weather balloon and GPS tracker, at a cost of less than $300. One could also easily imagine a crowdsourced monitoring solution, in which locals would be provided with special phones or just given an international number to call to upload images and record the location at which the pictures were taken. Had such technology been available and deployed in Iraq, where for several years the only way to find out what was happening on the archaeological sites was to risk being kidnapped (as Micah Garen and Susanne Osthoff both were), those of us who were hearing anecdotal reports of massive looting might have been able to confront US policymakers with embarrassing visual evidence and force the US military to address the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug.
  • The international demand for antiquities drives the looting, and therefore any effective anti-looting strategy must confront the market. The question is how. It is demonstrable that a worldwide ban on trade in antiquities from a wartorn country can substantially reduce the rate of digging. Unfortunately, this only works well with categories of antiquities whose country of origin is unique – not the case for most Syrian or Libyan antiquities. But if a ban is of little use, there is another way in which the licit market in antiquities could be of help. A tax could be levied on purchases, by American buyers, of high-end antiquities in those categories, and the proceeds used to pay for better international policing, assistance to locals trying to protect their sites, more site guards, monitoring systems, and programs like the ICCROM course mentioned above.
  • Last, but not least, archaeologists and heritage protection advocates need to find a way to enlist in their efforts the other major stakeholders, those with the wealth and power to make politicians listen: the directors of museums like the Met and the Getty; corporations like Google that are already helping; antiquities collectors who have shown their public-spiritedness by endowing institutes and donating collections; even dealers and auction houses. That might be a bitter pill to swallow for archaeologists, and it would require a change in the modus operandi of international organizations much more comfortable dealing with governments. But we need a louder voice.

 Lawrence Rothfield is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and a Research Affiliate and co-founder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, University of Chicago Press, 2009. His blog can be found at The Punching Bag.


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