Heritage Destruction in Syria is a War Crime


The Ancient Citadel, Damascus

I imagine that it’s probably not politically correct among many people (and this observer was once among them), to even mention the idea, but is it not the case, dear reader, that the continuing rampant and irreversible cultural terrorism ravaging Syria will not be halted by any anemic and elusive “international political solution” anytime soon? Doesn’t it warrant serious consideration at UN HQ, without further delay, of a limited and tightly monitored UN-led intervention to end the destruction of our cultural heritage? Specifically, by considering a quick short-leashed employment of Responsibility to Protect (R2P)?

“I am seeing Palmyra being destroyed right in front of my eyes. God help us in the days to come. Our darkest predictions are unfortunately taking place,” my friend, Dr. Abdul-Karim, the Director-General of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) recently explained, adding that he was somehow unsurprised to learn that the Islamic State had destroyed the second century AD Temple of Baalshamin (shown before and after its destruction below).

Photo by Elizabeth Roberts

The temple stood less than 100 yards from the Roman amphitheater where the Islamic State held a summary trial with unanimous verdict and mass execution of Syrian army prisoners last spring. Baalshamin was built in AD 17 as a place of worship dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and the sky. It was expanded under the reign of the emperor Hadrian in 130 AD and during the time of Queen Zenobia and her husband Septimius Odaenathus, the King of Kings of Palmyra, and subsequently evolved into a major worshipping site for a number of deities.

According to locals (and to the surprise of some of them), Daesh (ISIS) loyalist religious purists have since last May been seen using the pagan temple Baalshamin to pray Fajr (morning) prayers, including on the day they murdered archeologist Khaled al-Ass’ad earlier this month. But even their own place of worship needed to be blow-up on orders of a ranking local IS sheik. And so it was.

Irina Bokova, the chief of the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, issued an urgent appeal on 8/24/2015: “This destruction is a war crime under Section 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity. Daesh (Isis) is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world.” Ms. Bokova added that the “perpetrators must be accountable for their actions.”

The UNESCO Director is correct. The Daesh (ISIS) campaign against humanities cultural heritage isn’t just a violation of international law, but a genocidal assault on the core of our civilization. There are ample legal and historical precedents for judging Daesh’s (ISIS) antiquities destruction a war crime, as well as a crime against humanity. “This tragedy is far from just a cultural issue: it’s an issue of major security,” she said “We see clearly how terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy to destabilize and manipulate populations so that they can assure their own domination.” Daesh’s warped implementation of Sharia law and its destruction of cultural artifacts in Syria and elsewhere suggest an organization very similar to past and present totalitarian states which subjugate their citizens, while stripping them of all cultural and social individuality. Daesh mimics genocidal organizations such as the Mongols, Nazism, Pol Pot and many others before them. Its cultural carnage clearly falls under the legal definition of a war crime and it is the opinion of this observer that Director Bokova’s protestations carry the force of UN doctrine.

Photo showing Baalshamin destruction on 8/23/2015

As of today, much of Palmyra is still well preserved and could be saved if we act now. But what’s next on the agenda of the religious purists currently rampaging, so far with impunity, in Palmyra? It’s anyone’s guess. Will it be the temple of Bel, the former center of religious life in Palmyra with its still- preserved ancient cella, the inner sanctum dedicated to the sun god? Or will Daesh next destroy the Arc of Triumph on Palmyra’s ancient colonnades, or perhaps the second century AD Roman amphitheater which is currently being used as a trial and execution theatre?

Daesh apologists have repeatedly advised this observer that theirs is a carefully thought-out, quite legitimate religiously-based ideology that they claim combines cultural and religious purity. Some freely admit that in order to control and convert nonbelievers, their swelling ranks of religious purists plan to control culture, the essential context on which civil society is built. This, they insist, is absolutely required in order to achieve domination. And if necessary, the death cult claims it is ready to pursue complete annihilation, as they allegedly increased their use of mustard gas and now seek WMD’s, in partial preparation for entering some sort of a presumed afterlife.

There are ample recent international legal developments that point toward urgent R2P UN-led action to stop this cultural genocide which horrifies most of us.

International jurists generally agree that to employ R2P against those destroying archeological sites in Syria, there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring now or imminently likely to occur. Moreover, the main motive of the R2P action must be to prevent irreversible cultural cleansing. There must be reasonable grounds to believe that only military action would work in this particular case, that the means employed must not exceed what is necessary to secure the defined cultural protection objective, the chance of success must be reasonably high, and it must be unlikely that the consequences of the R2P intervention itself would be worse than the consequences without such intervention. Finally, the R2P military action to protect and preserve our global cultural heritage has to be authorized by the UN Security Council.

Caution is warranted in considering the use of R2P. One only needs to revisit the R2P fiasco unleashed during the summer of 2011 in Libya, where this observer spent many weeks witnessing the ‘civilian protection no fly-zone’ turn into a 14-week bombing frenzy which killed countless civilians and created what we see today in the ruins of Libya, to appreciate the need to strictly adhere to the above legal and political strictures. India’s UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri has argued that “the Libyan case has already given R2P a bad name” and that “the only aspect of the R2P resolution of interest to the international community was using all necessary means to bomb the hell out of Libya”. Puri also alleged that civilians had been supplied with arms and that the no-fly zone had been implemented only selectively.

Despite its misuse in Libya and its admittedly checkered past, Responsibility to Protect is perhaps the most important and imaginative doctrine to emerge on the international scene since the UN Charter and is one of the most promising international legal innovations available to us. It should not be ignored when we consider the war being waged to destroy our shared global culture in Syrua.

Other relevant factors to be considered as the UN Security Council meets on the subject of Syria, hopefully this week, include the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in particular Article 8(2)(b)(ix), which falls under the category of war crimes. Article 8 recognizes the act of ‘intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments…as a war crime.”

I would argue that the Rome statute codifies the normative definition of crimes against civilized society, including “cultural genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” The inclusion of cultural objects in the ICC’s doctrine on war crimes recognizes the apparent limitless nature of our species’ most depraved predilections to commit unrestrained evil.

Also applicable is the 2/12/2015 UN Security Council-adopted Resolution 2199 to respond to the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as the Al Nusra Front (ANF) and other groups associated with Al-Qaida (AQ). Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, this resolution provides for a range of tools, including sanctions and other binding measures, to degrade these terrorist organizations’ ability to carry out brutal attacks. It focuses extensively on terrorist financial support networks, particularly ISIL’s raising of funds through oil smuggling, the looting and selling of antiquities, kidnapping for ransom and other illicit activities. This resolution builds upon UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014), the Council’s first major resolution on the ISIL threat, adopted in August 2014. UNSCR 2170 condemns the destruction of cultural heritage areas in Iraq and Syria, including the targeted destruction of religious sites and objects. It notes that ISIL, ANF and AQ-related groups are generating income from the direct or indirect trade in looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items and it imposes a new ban on the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria.

Also noteworthy is the Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2013 and the European Union’s policy on the matter, paragraph 211, which states that ‘intentional forms of destruction of cultural and artistic heritage, as it is currently occurring in Syria, should be prosecuted as war crimes and as crimes against humanity.” The UN adopted the Hague Convention of 1954 which requires signatories to protect “cultural property”—movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people—from destruction and misappropriation, even in times of armed conflict. But the Hague Convention has not been applied, must less enforced, by most UN Member States.

I submit that while that R2P is not currently hard international law (in the sense of being a multinational treaty or enshrined in the UN Charter), it is based on respect for the fundamental principles of international law, especially the underlying propositions of law relating to sovereignty, peace and security, human rights, and armed conflict. It can be argued that given its wide acceptance among the 197 countries comprising the United Nations, that R2P has at least achieved the status of international customary law.

R2P has its origins in the failure to respond to tragedies in the 1990s, such as the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. In 2000, Kofi Annan, in his capacity as UN Secretary-General, authored the report “We the Peoples” on the role of the United Nations in the 21st Century and he posed the following question: If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?

Time is quickly running out for all of us to answer Annan’s question and if we reply in the affirmative, to petition our governments and the UN to create a highly mobile, competent, short-tethered and extensive international coalition force of fixed duration, perhaps subject to 90-day UN renewal, to act on our shared international responsibility to preserve and protect Syria’s Endangered Heritage.

Employing R2P should be debated and carefully considered. Here in Syria, there do not appear to be many other options, given the zeal of the jihadists hell- bent on the imminent destruction of humanity’s shared culture heritage and identity.

If we act quickly, despite the obstacles and the fanaticism of the jihadists, human creativity can prevail. Buildings and sites can be rehabilitated. Many, but alas not all, that have been destroyed can be rebuilt.

We have no alternative. Our shared cultural heritage teaches us tolerance and respect for a diverse humanity. If we rescue our common heritage, it will help save us from the foibles of arrogance, intolerance, prejudice and persecution of our fellow human beings.

It reminds us of our better nature and like the standing bodhisattva, Buddhas-to-be, helps us all live in a more humane world.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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