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Protecting humanity's heritage

Some things, once destroyed, represent an immeasurable loss for all humanity. The laws of war can help protect them.

Wednesday November 23, 2016

Palmyra temple
The 2000 year-old Baal Shamin temple in the ancient city of Palmyra is destroyed - and with it thousands of years of Syrian history and culture dating back to the 1st Century BC.

One of the casualties of the battle for Mosul was the 3,300-year-old Mesopotamian city of Nimrud.  

The former capital of the Assyrian empire, located 30 kilometres south of Mosul, is reported to have been completely destroyed during the last year.    

"The ruins have vanished. History that went back thousands of years was finished off in a night…it's a disaster," local resident Hassan Mahmoud told BBC Radio on 16 December.  

From Syria, Iraq and Mali to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Honduras, the world is seeing an alarming increase in the targeting and destruction of art and religious or historical monuments  during armed conflict.  

"To destroy art and cultural monuments is to attack human dignity and history," says Yvette Zegenhagen, who manages Australian Red Cross' International Humanitarian Law program.  

"Every time cultural property is destroyed, an irreplaceable part of humanity's history and achievements is gone forever," says Yvette.  

In 1993 the 16th Century Ottoman Bridge of Mostar, one of Bosnia-Herzegovnia's greatest architectural treasures was destroyed, and along with it the morale of the 25,000 Bosnians trapped in the city's east.  

In Afghanistan in 2001, the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan were deliberately blown up. Dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries, these standing statues once attracted up to 150,000 tourists every year.  

Last year, the 2,000-year-old Baal Shamin temple in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria was targeted and destroyed; and the archaeologist Prof Khaled al-Assad, who had been looking after the Palmyra ruins for four decades, was beheaded.  

"Australia has an important part to play in protecting the world's cultural treasures," Yvette explains.  

"We can start by safeguarding our own treasures: from ancient Aboriginal rock paintings and sacred sites like Uluru to iconic modern structures such as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge."    

One way to protect Australia's cultural property is to implement international legal instruments protecting cultural property and heritage.  

Another is to ratify the 1959 and 1999 Additional Protocols of the Hague Convention, which would enhance protection for cultural property of the 'greatest importance for humanity', strengthen enforcement for violations, and prevent the export of cultural property from war zones.  

As Yvette says: "We have a responsibility, shared with all countries, to ensure that our unique cultural treasures could survive an armed conflict."  

Learn more about protecting cultural property:

Australian Red Cross is hosting the Protecting Cultural Property in Armed Conflict - Obligations in War and Peace conference on Wednesday 7 - Thursday 8 December 2016 at the University of Adelaide Law School. Register here.