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When War Destroys Identity

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Conflict causes disruption and destruction of many sorts, including that of a people's identity. That can be especially true with armed conflict where cultural sites and monuments are at greater risk of being damaged, intentionally or otherwise. UNESCO, the education and cultural division of the United Nations, has conventions on how cultural heritage must be treated in times of conflict, in addition to other conventions that protect cultural property from being illicitly trafficked, and protection for intangible cultural heritage and underwater cultural legacy.

However, the protections for cultural property are not set in stone, and we've seen cultural destruction throughout history. In an article for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Francois Bugnion traces the history of cultural destruction: from the ruins that remain of Carthage, to the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Bugnion writes:

When monuments, places of worship and works of art are attacked, the aim is to destroy the enemy's identity, his history, his culture and his faith, so as to eradicate all trace of his presence and, in some cases, his very existence.

He further goes on to say that "the deliberate destruction of monuments, places of worship and works of art is a sign of degeneration into total war. It is sometimes the other face of genocide."

Archduke Karl von Habsburg spoke at the Commonwealth Club about changes in international conflict and how the change in warfare is affecting the fight to protect cultural heritage. As the president of the National Committees of the Blue Shield, a non-profit organization that works to help protect cultural monuments, the archduke is personally familiar with nations mired in conflict and the intricacies required to address the humanitarian situation while protecting cultural heritage. "When we're looking back at the Second World War, we could still see that this was a traditional international war, a war between nations, a war that went particularly across borders," he said. The archduke went on to note, however, that many of today's conflicts are not between nations but are nuanced: interethnic, interreligious and intercultural. He also noted that the role soldiers used to play has changed: before, a soldier's duty was one of armed warfare on the ground; now, especially in the case of the United States, it includes nation-building, much of which has to do with understanding and preserving culture and identity.

Though conflict has proven to be detrimental to preserving cultural identity and the relics that depict the creativity and history of humankind, they can also provide opportunity for innovation. Von Habsburg cited Blue Shield's work in Libya during the Arab Spring. By working with multiple organizations and in-country experts, Blue Shield created a list of no-strike sites of cultural significance that they passed on to the military. During the conflict, only two of the sites on Blue Shield's list were hit, and even so, they weren't targeted intentionally but were collateral damage. Though the archduke is quick to note that there's no way to prove that Blue Shield's list was actively used by the military as they planned their actions on the ground, he does believe that creating the channels for communication is important. "We are a translation office," von Habsburg said of Blue Shield.

We are translating two languages that are normally completely incompatible. We are translating from military to academic and from academic to military, because these are two groups of people that, as a matter of principle, never communicate.

But conflicts are ongoing, and the archduke also noted that not all of them provide the opportunity to proactively ensure the protection of cultural sites on the ground. Citing the war in Syria, von Habsburg added that it's not simply a matter of protecting cultural sites but also preventing the trade and trafficking of cultural goods. UNESCO has launched a campaign to highlight the looting of museums and illegal excavations of archeological sites in Syria though as this article in the Global Post notes, many Syrian ruins that depict thousands of years of cultural and religious history have already been damaged.

As fighting continues, so does the threat of further damage. There are people on the ground working to prevent theft and preserve as much as they can, and others are documenting what is happening, but the need for continued work to save a cultural legacy remains clear. "I think one can safely say we are definitely not running out of work," noted Archduke von Habsburg.

The connection between a people's identity and cultural artifacts makes preserving those legacies all the more important. Most recently, a museum in Pasadena agreed to return a statue to Cambodia, which Cambodian officials believe was looted during the Cambodian civil war. The museum noted that the decision to return the statue, which has been on display for almost four decades, comes after a "unique and compelling request by top officials in Cambodia to help rebuild its 'soul' as a nation."

Protecting cultural history and property is a collective responsibility, according to Bugnion:

By protecting cultural property, one is attempting to protect not only monuments and objects, but a people's memory, its collective consciousness and its identity, and indeed the memory, consciousness and identity of all the individuals who make up that people. Ultimately, we do not exist outside of our families and the social frameworks to which we belong.

The archduke agrees, noting in his Commonwealth Club talk that destruction of cultural property in Mali, Syria or the Ukraine is not an isolated incident but one that affects our joined cultural heritage. As such, it needs to be addressed in joint efforts, to ensure that future generations can benefit from access to the cultural history that has already taught us a tremendous deal about the origins and evolution of our ancestors.