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Why protecting Australia's cultural property and heritage matters

Imagine Sydney without the Opera House or Kakadu without Aboriginal rock art. These Australian icons are cultural treasures that must be protected for the whole of humanity.

Monday December 12, 2016

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to spectacular rock art, Australian treasures protected for their cultural significance. Photo: Uluru / AAPone

It's vital that all countries prepare in peacetime to ensure that their unique cultural treasures can be protected in times of war.

These places are valued for their essential contribution to our society's unique identity and history. The desecration of cultural treasures such as these represents an immeasurable loss for all of humanity.

As places of significant cultural value are increasingly targeted in conflicts around the world, steps need to be taken to protect cultural property and to encourage others in the international community to do the same.

The Sydney Opera House is included in UNESCOs World Heritage List as a 'masterpiece of 20th century architecture'. If Australia were to become a conflict zone the Opera House would be considered as cultural property requiring 'enhanced protection'. Photo: Sydney Opera House / Australian Red Cross.

Protecting cultural property

The laws of war recognise that cultural property has indisputable cultural significance and there is a collective moral duty to protect them. 

This protection must be considered in times of peace, in order for it to be effective in times of war.

Cultural property is any moveable or immoveable object of great importance to the cultural heritage of people. This includes monuments of architecture or history, archaeological sites, works of art, archives, books or any building whose main and effective purpose is to house cultural property.

Under the laws of war, states must respect cultural property by taking steps to prohibit, prevent and stop any form of theft, pillaging, misappropriation, or acts of vandalism directed against cultural property.

The 1954 Protocol to the Hague Convention provides additional protections for dealing with moveable objects such as artworks and artefacts.


UNESCO recognises the aboriginal rock art in Kakadu National Park  for its 'outstanding universal value' to humanity. Photo: Aboriginal Rock art in Kakadu National Park / AAPone

Indigenous Cultural Protection

With some of the oldest and arguably most important sites in the world, Australia has an important role to play in protecting cultural treasures. UNESCO's World Heritage List recognises the art within Kakadu National Park and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for its 'outstanding universal value'.

Located in the Northern Territory, the iconic and accessible Nourlangie and Ubirr rock art galleries are cultural treasures of international significance, that have recorded the skills and way of life of Aboriginal people who have continually resided in the area for over 40,000 years. Located in Kakadu National Park the rock paintings are one of the largest collections of historical records of any group of people worldwide.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory are important cultural sites of the Anangu people. Their cultural traditions are documented in the rock art caves around the base of Uluru and the sacred nature of the rock domes of Kata Tjuta.

Cultural property like these are valued and protected by Indigenous heritage law. These Laws include the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Heritage Protection Act and the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act.

However, Australia's Indigenous heritage law is just one way Cultural Property is protected. By valuing our own cultural property and taking steps to protect it both nationally and internationally we can ensure that what we have that is unique is protected for the future of humanity.

There are a number of other steps that Australia can take. These steps include ratifying the 1959 and 1999 Additional Protocols of the Hague Convention that strengthen the protections for cultural property.

Australia can create comprehensive lists and develop preservation and protection plans for its own cultural property.

In recent times, there are many examples of global efforts to protect cultural treasures. The United Nations included protection of culture in the mandate of its peacekeepers in Mali. UNESCO recommends that cultural property specialists be embedded with all military forces engaging in conflict, as the "monuments men" did in World War II. Recently, Italy has proposed an international rapid response force to protect places of cultural significance during conflict.

As home of the oldest living cultures in the world, Australia should take steps to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material and sites, as well as cultural property housed in our state and national institutions, is protected according to standards of international best practice.

If cultural property is not protected during times of peace then it is going to be very difficult protecting them during war. Help Australian Red Cross spread the word that even wars have laws, and they protect the things that matter.

Learn more about how International Humanitarian Law protects Cultural Property.