As the Islamic State rampages across the Middle East, destroying lives, killing off Christian communities, and smashing ancient cultural artefacts, the British government has vowed to act – by finally ratifying a Convention to protect those artefacts, 61 years after it was first drawn up.
The 1954 Hague Convention, drawn up after World War II to protect cultural heritage during times of war, commits its signatories to protect and safeguard “cultural property”, asserting that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.”
Although Britain was one of the original signatories to the convention, she never ratified it, saying she would do so when time allowed.
With ISIS threatening the destruction of ancient ruins such as the city of Palmyra, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has now found the time to do so. He has said that the destruction that ISIS has already wrought is a “shocking threat to the world’s heritage and an affront to our common human values.”
He added: “The recent cultural destruction in Syria and Iraq has been devastating. These countries contain some of the world’s most important historical monuments and artefacts which are now at risk as a result of the ongoing conflict.
“The wanton destruction that has already taken place is inflicting even further suffering on countries that are undergoing the worst humanitarian crisis of a generation.
“While the UK’s priority will continue to be the human cost of these horrific conflicts, I am in no doubt that the UK must also do what we can to prevent any further cultural destruction.
“The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its very identity. The knowledge and expertise of the experts in our cultural institutions makes us uniquely qualified to help.
“I believe that the UK therefore has a vital responsibility to support cultural protection overseas and recent events have confirmed the urgency of this.”
To that end, the government has pledged to set up a fund designed to “help safeguard the heritage of countries affected by conflict or at risk of coming under attack for ideological reasons.” It is expected that the Chancellor George Osborne will reveal how much money will be awarded to the fund when he unveils his annual budget later this year.
Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of the British Museum, has been urging the government to do more to protect cultural treasures from destruction. In addition to ratifying the Convention, Mr MacGregor would like to see British-trained archeologists despatched to the Middle East to rescue antiquities at risk from destruction.
Although he conceded that enshrining the Convention on Britain’s statute books will not actually stop ISIS from looting and dismantling sites such as Palmyra, he declared that he was “delighted” that the government had finally got around to ratification.