CAA News Today

US Ratifies Treaty to Protect Cultural Property in Time of War

posted by Christopher Howard — Oct 02, 2008

On September 25, 2008, the United States Senate voted to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This international convention regulates the conduct of nations during war and military occupation in order to assure the protection of cultural sites, monuments, and repositories, including museums, libraries, and archives. Written in the wake of the widespread cultural devastation perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and modeled on instructions given by General Dwight Eisenhower to aid in the preservation of Europe’s cultural legacy, the Hague Convention is the oldest international agreement to address exclusively cultural-heritage preservation. The US now joins 121 other nations in becoming a party to this historic treaty. By taking this significant step, the US demonstrates its commitment to the preservation of the world’s cultural, artistic, religious, and historic legacy.

Although the US signed the convention soon after its writing, the Pentagon objected to ratification because of increasing cold-war tensions. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did the US military withdraw its objections, and President Bill Clinton transmitted the convention to the Senate in 1999. The public attention given to the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003 and the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq during the ensuing years revived interest in the convention, and the Senate finally voted to give its advice and consent to ratification last week.

A number of understandings were established in connection with the ratification, mostly to ensure that the convention does not interfere substantially with the US military’s ability to wage war. The final element of the ratification is a “declaration,” which states that the treaty, though self-executing: (a) does not require the US government to prosecute anyone who violates the convention (implicitly meaning that such prosecution is required only if a US law is also violated); and (b) does not give individual persons a right of redress in US courts.

Peter Tompa at the Cultural Property Observer provides a summary and commentary on what happened in the Senate. CAA has posted PDFs of both the introduction of the Hague Convention to the Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the ratification of the treaty, from the Congressional Record.

Statements by Hague Convention Advocates
While US policy has been to follow the principles of the convention, ratification will raise the imperative of protecting cultural heritage during conflict, including the incorporation of heritage preservation into military planning; ratification will also clarify the United States’ obligations and encourage the training of military personnel in cultural-heritage preservation and the recruitment of cultural-heritage professionals into the military. Cori Wegener, president of the US Committee of the Blue Shield (USCBS), noted that “Ratification of the Hague Convention provides a renewed opportunity to highlight cultural-property training for US military personnel at all levels, and to call attention to cultural-property considerations in the early stages of military planning. The US Committee of the Blue Shield will continue its commitment to offering cultural-property training and coordination with the US military and to increase public awareness about the 1954 Hague Convention and its international symbol, the Blue Shield.”

Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP), cited among the advantages of ratification, “Most importantly, it sends a clear signal to other nations that the United States respects their cultural heritage and will facilitate US cooperation with its allies and coalition partners in achieving more effective preservation efforts in areas of armed conflict.”

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has advocated ratification of the Hague Convention for more than fifteen years. John Russell, AIA vice president for professional responsibilities, commented that “By ratifying the 1954 Hague Convention, the US has affirmed its commitment to protecting cultural property during armed conflict. The Archaeological Institute of America will continue to work with the Department of Defense to integrate the Convention’s provisions fully and consistently into the US military training curriculum at all levels.”

Since the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation in 2004 and of the US Committee of the Blue Shield in 2006, ratification has been among their primary priorities. AIA, LCCHP, and USCBS formed a coalition of preservation organizations that submitted testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of ratification and worked with members of the Senate to achieve this historic step. The Statement in Support of US Ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention urging Senate ratification, joined by twelve other cultural preservation organizations, is available from LCCHP.

LCCHP acknowledges the additional assistance of the Society for American Archaeology and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in the effort to achieve ratification of the Hague Convention.

CAA Standards and Guidelines
CAA has advocated for the ratification of the convention for decades. CAA has also published its own Standards and Guidelines on issues related to international cultural heritage: the CAA Statement on the Importance of Documenting the Historical Context of Objects and Sites (2004), A Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History (1995), part of which addresses trafficking in works of art; and the Resolution Concerning the Acquisition of Cultural Properties Originating in Foreign Countries (1973).