Russia’s War on Ukrainian Heritage, Yet Another War Crime

Photos by EPA/EFF

The nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine’s words inspired Raphael Lemkin, the drafter of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies…but when one intervenes … against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.”[1]

Lemkin’s immediate reference was the November 1938 Kristallnacht crimes, the coordinated program and cultural destruction in the Third Reich, but there are far too many other instances across time and space. While Vladimir Putin’s docket in The Hague is already lengthy, the war crime of destroying cultural heritage is yet another reason to say “nyet” to Russian recolonization.

The UN General Assembly’s condemnation and decision to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council reflected the continuing and contemporary relevance of what former UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova labeled “cultural cleansing” with reference to Iraq and Syria. This expression is not a legal term, but UNESCO applies it to connote cultural removal akin to “ethnic cleansing”—a term coined in the early 1990s to describe mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, which also has no formal legal definition. Cultural cleansing and ethnic cleansing are evocative; both capture dramatic crimes that shock the human conscience.

Scholars have paid only fleeting attention to this emphasis in Lemkin’s work—the relevance of biological and cultural genocide, [2] but it certainly applies to Ukraine. UNESCO has compiled a growing list that in mid-November counts 210 sites that have been damaged or destroyed since Moscow’s invasion began on 24 February 2022. It includes 91 religious sites, 76 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 18 monuments, 15 museums, and 10 libraries.

Unfortunately, recent history is replete with similar tragic examples. Shortly after ISIS (or Da’esh) took the city of Palmyra in Syria in the summer of 2015, they exploded the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin. For informed observers, the destruction was linked to the group’s ongoing murder, human trafficking, slavery, and terror in Syria and Iraq. Mass atrocities also accompanied the destruction of cultural heritage when insurgents deliberately shelled the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993, destroyed the fabled mosques, mausoleums, and libraries of Timbuktu in Mali in 2012, as well as when the Taliban dynamited the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.

Social scientists are taught to ask, “so what?” Moreover, we should add, “Can anything be done?” Affirmative responses are suggested by the history of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a remarkable human rights achievement despite its contested application and nonapplication—e.g., in Libya but not in Syria, Myanmar, and Ukraine.

The concepts applied by the commission mirror those of cultural specialists—the essential responsibilities are to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. The heightened attention in academic and public policy discourse to the demands of coming to the rescue of people now also characterizes the challenge of protecting cultural heritage.

In fact, the intimate link between attacking bricks and attacking blood, or murdering history and people, provides means to unite the tasks of protecting heritage and humans because the international political disputes about when and where to intervene in specific crises to protect people do not characterize the protection of cultural heritage. Rogues that destroy heritage—such nonstate thugs as ISIS, such pariah states as Taliban Afghanistan, and such major powers as China in Xinjiang—are immediate targets for external opprobrium. Widespread if not quite universal international condemnation erupts rather than endless debates about whether outside interveners are neo-colonialists or cosmopolitans.

Ironically, many iconoclasts who destroy heritage and murder people can use social media to help recruitment. Ironically, such performative destruction constitutes a “benefit” for them, which is dramatically overshadowed by the costs borne by local residents and the rest of us.

Could reframing intervention to protect heritage make it easier to reach a consensus about robust international action that would also protect the people whose culture is under siege? That question animated a research project and the resulting open-access publication of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities.

Amidst the political gloom that dominates the present moment, there is a bit of good news. The public’s awareness and shock about the destruction of such renowned sites as the Bamiyan Buddhas, Mostar Bridge, Palmyra, Sana’a, and Timbuktu, also lay behind the nearly universal international revulsion and outrage in January 2020, when Donald Trump mindlessly threatened to target 52 Iranian cultural sites when Tehran menaced retaliation for the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

In short, protecting heritage has become visible on the international public policy agenda. It is no longer a “niche topic,” the exclusive domain of cultural specialists. If any further indications were necessary, the failure to protect adequately Iraqi cultural heritage during the initial US occupation suggested the need to broaden perspectives and participation. The rescue of individuals caught in the crosshairs of violence and menaced by mass atrocities invariably are amidst conscious cultural heritage destruction. Indeed, for those of us who analyze politics and design responses, including military ones, it is important that insiders at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) speak increasingly of the “security-heritage nexus.”

It is essential that we be preoccupied not only with visible World Heritage sites recognized by UNESCO but also less well-known, everyday structures—Uyghur mud-brick temples in China, Christian village cemeteries in Iraq and Syria, local Rohingya mosques in Myanmar, and Russia’s campaign since 2014 to eliminate Tatar traces in the occupied Crimea. While they do not make for media coverage, these more commonplace sites have become a daily bill-of-fare of destruction, another indication of the widespread onslaught against the people whose heritage they represent, as part of efforts to eliminate histories along with human beings.

The core R2P ethical framework is to halt mass murder and mass forced displacement, actual or anticipated. Its emergence reflected an altered political reality. Although specific decisions about exactly when and where to invoke R2P remain controversial, few observers question whether global responses to mass atrocities are justified. Instead, the debate centers on precisely how best to achieve R2P’s lofty aims.

So too is the intersection between violent attacks on humans and heritage. The protection of immovable cultural heritage is not a distraction for proponents of the robust protection of people. There is no need to add another crime to the four mass atrocities agreed by the UN’s 2005 World Summit. Rather, protecting cultural heritage is a fundamental aspect of protecting people from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.[3] In addition, emphasizing such protection within the R2P framework has the potential to widen support for the evolving norm and its evolution in customary law as well as contribute to ongoing conversations about legitimate sovereignty.

Responsible states view mass atrocities as an international concern and not merely one of domestic jurisdiction. The destruction of cultural heritage should be viewed similarly because of the universal value and the intimate links between attacks on cultural objects, structures, and monuments and attacks on vulnerable populations.

While destroying cultural heritage is not new—examples go back to antiquity—neither is the impulse to protect and preserve it; the contemporary convergence of two factors has altered the politics of protection and the feasibility of international action. First, the destruction of cultural heritage has riveted the attention not only of curators, archaeologists, historians, and activists but also of major media outlets and popular audiences. Second, they find themselves in the company of a cottage industry of social scientists, international lawyers, and military officers exploring R2P’s application to the protection of cultural heritage.

There is no need to split hairs between safeguarding people and the cultural heritage that sustains them. Trying to establish a priority between them constitutes a false choice, reminiscent of juxtaposing development and the environment. The staff from the Middle East Institute, the Asia Society, and the Antiquities Coalition evaluated the widespread devastation in Asia and concluded: “The fight to protect the peoples of the region and their heritage cannot be separated.”


[1] Quoted in Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, 2nd ed. (London: Reaktion Books, 2016), 15.

[2] Raphael Lemkin, “Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations,” (1933); and Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, and Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 1944), xiii.

[3] UN, 2005 World Summit Outcome, General Assembly resolution 60/1, 24 October 2005, paragraphs 138–140.

Thomas G. Weiss

Thomas G. Weiss is a Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center; a Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminence Scholar, at Kyung Hee University, Korea. He has written extensively about multilateral approaches to international peace and security, humanitarian action, and sustainable development. Most recently, he is the editor (with James Cuno) of Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, a 2022 open-access book of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

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