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The war in Ukraine and the protection of the cultural heritage  

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Among the innocent victims of any conflict, we also unfortunately have the cultural and historical sites of the territories plagued by the military operations. In the past weeks much has been said about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, but little has been written on the conditions of the artistic heritage of the country.   

Tra I Leoni had the opportunity to interview Roger O’Keefe, Full Professor of International Law here at Bocconi and expert in international culture heritage law. We asked him to give us an opinion on the current situation in Ukraine. 

  1. What is the current situation in Ukraine with respect to the cultural heritage of the country?  

If we consider the major monuments, those of sacred or artistic significance like the World Heritage Sites, the situation has been not too bad, so far. For Example, the main monasteries in Kyiv or the historic parts of Lviv or Odessa have been up to now spared.  

However, there have been damages to the streetscape of many cities. For example, in Kharkiv or Chernihiv buildings from the Czarist period or from the 1920s were hit. 

Unfortunately, we also saw more dramatic episodes, such as the destruction of the theatre in Mariupol, but this was not really because it is a cultural building but – even worse – because the Russians knew it was full of civilians sheltering there, who thought they were safe inside. Up to 300 people are thought to have been killed.  

  1. In any armed conflict the destruction of cultural sites seems to be a constant. Is it an unintended consequence of the war or a clear signal from a belligerent country?  

The cultural sites are often damaged during a conflict. However, it is more of a myth the idea that they are directly targeted. This actually leads people to think that they will be targeted, and this may lead the belligerents to target them.  

However, despite this vicious circle, it is relatively rare for cultural sites to be deliberately targeted as a strategy of war.  

Unfortunately, there are exceptions. For instance, in the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs deliberately destroyed the cultural heritage of the Bosnian Muslims, focusing specifically on the ancient mosques of the Ottoman period. 

Another tragic example is the one of Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State deliberately destroyed historical sites. This was done purely for ideological reasons and with no relation with respect to the military operations. 

As said, these are exceptions. By enlarge, military forces do not deliberately target cultural sites. What usually happens is that they get damaged unintentionally during the military operations.  

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in terms of destruction of cultural heritage, in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine the situation is not too bad, probably because the Russians see these sites as theirs in a cultural sense. 

There are photos of Kharkiv in which it is clearly visible that a whole area is destructed but the local orthodox church is untouched. This is linked to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church wants to get back control over the secessionist Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which succeeded from the control of Moscow 2 or 3 years ago. 

In other words, Russia does not want to destroy sacred or cultural sites in Ukraine since they see them as in some way their own. 

  1. On the other side, why is it so important for a country under attack to protect its historical heritage? 

Firstly, the country under attack tends to see its cultural heritage as a source of strength and memory for the people. There is an identification between the individuals and the sites, which acquire a larger significance and become the depository of the idea of the resistance of the population. 

Secondly, cultural sites are seen as belonging to the whole humanity and the local population feels the responsibility to protect this heritage. 

Finally, there is a hope in the future: after the war the sites are a sign of survival, and they represent an economic opportunity given their potential touristic role.  

  1. Are there international laws aimed at the protection of historical sites during conflicts?  

 Yes. There are different treaties, like the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  

Alongside with treaties there are customary international laws (unwritten laws) which establish two types of obligations: negative obligations, like the prohibition to target cultural sites unless this is absolutely necessary or to plunder artworks from cultural sites, and positive obligations, such as the duty to move heritage items out of dangerous zones. Talking of this, the Ukrainians have done 2 important things: they provided structural support for the buildings with sandbags and scaffolding and they removed the precious movable cultural heritage out of dangerous zones. Many of these artworks and antiquities are now in safer places, particularly in the West of the country and in the city of Lviv.  

  1. In the past, have the States and the individuals responsible for the destruction and the looting of elements of cultural heritage faced consequences? 
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Yes, and there are many examples: after WWII, in the Nuremberg Trials, the charges against some Nazi officials like Alfred Rosenberg and Joachim Von Ribbentrop included charges in relation to the systematic destruction and plunder of cultural sites. More recently, at the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia, many military officials were persecuted and condemned for violations of laws on the protection of cultural sites. Among the others, the commanders who had ordered the bombardments over Dubrovnik. 

States have as well have a responsibility. Germany, after World War One, had to make reparations for the destruction of cultural sites in the occupied territories.  Another example is Italy, that had to return to Ethiopia cultural objects and artworks plundered during the colonial war.  

  1. What is the role of UNESCO?  

UNESCO plays a key role in providing technical support and, to a lesser extent, financial support. 

The technical support is provided by ensuring assistance in the preparation of the cultural sites in the possibility of damages and in the transportation of movable cultural items. In fact, this is a delicate task since mishandling artworks could provoke irreparable damages.  

UNESCO also works on the consciousness raising by putting the cultural situation under the spotlight. In this way, the parties involved in the conflict should be forced to behave accordingly to the international regulations. 

  1. What role do you think the Ukrainian cultural heritage will play in the reconstruction of the country? 

It will play an important role. A good example comes from Iraq. The City of Mosul, which suffered much destruction at the hands of ISIS, has been the focus of a major effort of reconstruction. The project, coordinated by UNESCO, has seen the financial contribution of many States and is now an element of pride for the local community.  

Another positive example is represented by Dubrovnik, in Croatia, where the reconstruction after the war helped the city to re-emerge as a famous touristic destination. 

These cases demonstrate the importance of the cultural heritage in the reconstruction: materially, it has a positive impact on the job market and on the local economy; spiritually, it represents a symbol of resilience and determination of the people.  

  1. In the future, we hope as soon as possible, Russia and Ukraine will need to seat around a table to discuss their future relations. In a setting characterized by the wounds of the war, can culture represent a tool to help the reconciliation? 

Culture helps reconciliation. Even in this setting, this is true, also given the fact that the two countries share many common cultural elements, among the others, the religious one. 

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Even if the relation between the governments will remain tense, culture will help to reconnect the parties at the community and individual level.  

In this sense, a significant role will be played by individual artists, museums, and clergymen.  

My hope is that sharing the similarities, and even the differences, will help creating a commonality, base for a solid peace. 

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Articles written by the various members of our team.

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My name is Pierfrancesco Urbano, I am currently studying International Politics and Government in Bocconi. I grew up in Bologna, but now I live in Milan. I’m interested in international relations and politics, but I’m also passionate about art, theatre, and humanities. I see journalism as a way for me to be actively engaged in the society and in its political and cultural dimensions.

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