Main Navigation

Culture under Attack

A new photographic exhibition at the High Court of Australia showcases how the laws of war must protect precious cultural heritage as well as people.

Tuesday March 15, 2016

Two Syrian boys pass a destroyed tank and damaged mosque as they fetch water in the city of Azaz. Credit: AP / Ben Hubbard

A centuries-old stone head lies on the floor of a ransacked Baghdad museum. A church in France is reduced to rubble. And in Afghanistan, a woman walks past the empty alcoves that used to house the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 as a horrified world looked on.

International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the 'laws of war', seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict on civilian people and property. Such property often refers to power stations, water supplies and other infrastructure facilities vital to the survival of communities. Yet structures such as churches, museums and historical precincts also play an important role in preserving the cultural identity and history of a nation, and as such must also be protected. Despite this, an increasing number of such places have been targeted or looted during times of conflict, an action that not only contravenes international humanitarian law, but can rob a people of their history and make post-war recovery more difficult.

"Cultural property embodies the social, historical, religious and artistic components of human identity. It plays a vital role in a nation's being," says Yvette Zegenhagen of the Australian Red Cross IHL department. "Though the destruction of such property can't compare to issues such as genocide and torture, it can nevertheless have a profound impact on those cultural groups affected."

Opening this month in the High Court of Australia, the 'Culture under Attack' exhibition features an array of confronting imagery photographed over several decades, detailing the tragic toll exacted on some of the world's most irreplaceable monuments and treasures. The exhibition not only highlights the damage inflicted upon cultural property worldwide - a picture of the Sarajevo National Library's assistant director sifting through the building's destroyed collection is particularly poignant - but also explains the ongoing struggle that IHL authorities face in ensuring the protection and repatriation of such monuments and objects. Many have been lost forever to war.

Despite this, there have been victories. In 2006 the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was finally returned to its rightful owners six decades after being stolen from Vienna by the Nazis, its successful recovery recounted in the 2015 film Woman in Gold. Yvette hopes that stronger compliance with international humanitarian law will ensure that more cultural artefacts will be preserved and not - like the Bamiyan Buddhas -become the collateral damage of conflict.

"The laws are there, but they're not effective unless they're respected and enforced," she says. "All participating parties should not only actively protect such property during conflict, but also ensure that those attacking cultural artefacts are held accountable for their actions.  It's also vital that nations take steps in peacetime to identify their cultural heritage, so that it can be protected during war.  If these steps aren't taken, some of the world's most precious objects will only be remembered in pictures and books, which would be a tragedy not only for that particular nation, but also the whole of humanity."

'Culture under Attack' is being launched by Dr Chris Bourke MLA, ACT Minister for Small Business and the Arts, at the High Court of Australia on March 24. Book here.

Find out more about the laws of war.