By Jeffrey Levin

As recent events in Yugoslavia grimly demonstrate, the fading of East-West tensions that dominated international political relations during the latter half of the 20th century has by no means signaled the end of armed struggles. Croatian and Serbian communities have witnessed the indiscriminate and tragic loss of human life. Lost, as well, have been the architectural and artistic treasures of centuries.

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Those charged with the preservation of cultural property confront many adversaries. Natural disasters, corrosive environments, and human ignorance all threaten our artistic and historical heritage. But the threat to cultural property from armed conflict remains particularly intractable and disturbing.

The Hague Convention of 1899 and the Roerich Pact signed in Washington, D.C. in 1935 were the first major international agreements to create measures designed to protect sites and cultural property during war. They were followed by the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted in 1954 at a conference at the Hague held under the auspices of UNESCO. Although nearly half of the 166 member states of the United Nations are signatories to the Convention, there are some prominent exceptions: the United States, the United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China, and Japan have yet to join.

The 1954 treaty—which includes general provisions for protecting cultural property, reporting mechanisms, and specific procedures to be invoked during armed conflict—remains the most comprehensive international agreement on the subject. Nations that have ratified the Convention are required during peace time to register the cultural property within their borders, and in times of conflict to respect the cultural property of other nations. Among other things, the pact mandates its members "to prosecute and impose penal or disciplinary sanctions upon those persons, of whatever nationality" who either order or commit violations of the treaty.

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Even among its signatories, the Convention has been applied infrequently. According to reports submitted to the Director-General of UNESCO, breaches of the treaty have occurred in such instances as the Turkish bombardment of Paphos, Cyprus in 1974, and military operations in and around the archaeological site of Tyre during the 1982-83 conflict between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iran reported Iraqi shelling of cultural and historic sites in Abadan and Shush. Iraq refused to mark its own sites with flags containing the emblem designated by the Convention "because this emblem may be seen by aeroplanes not only by the missiles and artillery, which attack the Iraqi towns with no exception."

During the more recent conflict in the Persian Gulf, Iraq violated the Convention both in its placement of war planes at the archaeological site of Ur and in the looting by Iraqi forces of the 30,000-piece Islamic art collection in Kuwait's National Museum.

In a 1983 report to UNESCO's Director-General, a group of legal experts acknowledged that the Convention "had not been effective enough, owing, particularly, to the States having lost interest in it." The group recommended organizing a conference of UNESCO members to revitalize the Convention and to direct public attention to the issue. No conference was convened. Instead, the following year a ceremony was held commemorating the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention.

Despite its poor record of achievement, the 1954 Convention is unlikely to be superseded by stronger international legislation. "The document is not ideal," observes Bonnie Burnham, executive director of the World Monuments Fund, "but it's probably the best we're going to get. I think it would be fruitless to draft new legislation. We ought to work within the framework that exists."

The framers of the Convention actually contemplated the kind of internal conflict that began in Yugoslavia in 1991. Article 19 of the treaty states:

    In the event of an armed conflict not of an international character occurring within the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the provisions of the present Convention which relate to respect for cultural property.

Yugoslavia, it should be noted, is a signatory to the Convention. Some suggest that the Convention's effectiveness could increase if important nonsignatories not only ratified the pact, but promoted stricter adherence to its requirements. "The Convention would have more prominence and clout if the major western countries participated," says Burnham.

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One obstacle to stricter enforcement is the failure of a great many of the signatories to fully register their own cultural sites, as required by the Convention. If called upon to immediately flag all the sites protected under the treaty's terms, many countries would have difficulty doing so. Creating more complete national cultural inventories is clearly a priority. One suggestion has been the use, during peacetime, of military resources such as satellite mapping to identify and inventory sites.

Another proposal for strengthening the 1954 Convention is the creation of a unit of cultural property specialists as part of any U.N. peacekeeping force. The treaty itself envisions something similar in Article 7 when it calls upon signatories to:

    undertake to plan or establish in peacetime, within their armed forces, services or specialist personnel whose purpose will be to secure respect for cultural property and to cooperate with the civilian authorities responsible for safeguarding it.

There is precedent for the kind of services described in Article 7: During World War II, both the United States and British armies had Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (M, FA, and A) units, small military contingents which had the primary function of preserving and conserving cultural heritage in the midst of combat and occupation.

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The success of these units nearly 50 years ago is encouraging to those who believe that a unit of specialists should routinely be included in the assembly of U.N. peacekeeping forces. Because civilians such as relief and health workers are already a component of these forces, proponents believe that it would be relatively simple to include civilian specialists in art, architecture, archaeology, and conservation. Still, such specialists would only become involved once damage or loss has occurred. The real challenge is preventing damage or loss by creating an abiding and universal sense of respect for the artistic and historical heritage of all cultures.

As long as warfare remains the last resort for civil and international conflict resolution, cultural property will be caught in the cross fire. The international cultural and conservation communities will need to develop more effective means to protect cultural property and more powerful ways to deter those who, in the process of waging war and destroying lives, also diminish a cultural heritage that transcends borders and political grievances.

All photographs in this article were taken by Radovan Ivancevic in Yugoslavia in the fall of 1991.