Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reflections on the Anniversary of the Iraq Museum Looting

As we observe the sixth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and remember also the looting of many other cultural institutions and archaeological sites throughout Iraq, it is worth reflecting on some of the changes that have occurred, many as the result of the worldwide attention that focused on the problems of looting of sites and institutions not only in Iraq but throughout the world.

Probably the most significant change is that the United States became a party to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict when it deposited its instrument of ratification on March 13, 2009. Undoubtedly the longest-awaited event (for over fifty-four years), this signaled at least a shift in attitude by the United States which, although it has followed those portions of the Convention that are accepted as part of customary international law, will now make greater efforts to prepare its military to protect cultural property in both current and future conflicts. The United Kingdom is also making progress toward ratification of the convention and its protocols.

The response to the looting of the Iraq Museum also saw swift world-wide action to prevent trade in cultural materials illegally removed from Iraq, including a UN Security Council Resolution and legislation or regulations enacted by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States, among others. No other event in the recent history of cultural heritage preservation seems to have generated such a quick and universal response, demonstrating that when sufficiently motivated, the nations of the world can act to protect their shared heritage.

Finally, we note that three organizations were founded in the United States, all of which have taken on different aspects of the movement to preserve cultural heritage. SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) was founded as a grassroots movement to raise public awareness of and interest in preserving heritage. The US Committee of the Blue Shield, a part of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, was founded to address the challenges of protecting cultural property during armed conflict and during natural disaster. It has taken the lead in working with the US military to train our forces in cultural heritage awareness and preservation. Finally, the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, although founded to address cultural heritage preservation both domestically within the United States and internationally, was created as part of this same movement. While the effect of war on Iraq’s cultural heritage was tragic, and the efforts to preserve and protect its heritage is still an ongoing struggle, the impact of the looting of the Iraq Museum was surely one that none could have predicted.