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Massive Destruction of Cultural Heritage Caused by Russian

Invasion: Ukraine Refuses to Surrender

Sandra Salwa Afifah , Nalendra Bharata Kusuma

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ABSTRACT

The war between Ukraine and Russia has been going on for two years. The current Ukrainian-Russian war has caused unprecedented damage, resulting in the destruction of a number important and historic buildings including cultural heritage. In this case, international regulations are needed to keep cultural heritage away from the impact of conflict. This research analyzes the role of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) in protecting cultural heritage amidst the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and examines the effectiveness of international rules that protect cultural heritage amidst the conflict. This article uses a legal research approach that examines the current state of affairs in Ukraine and Russia, conducting a thorough investigation through scholarly journals, articles, and various library sources. International law has regulations that protect cultural heritage in conflict areas, such as the Hague Convention of 1954. Then, these regulations are also supported by the presence of international organizations such as UNESCO which has the sole aim of protecting cultural heritage in a conflict. In the article, it is explained that ICBS plays a role in protecting cultural heritage in Ukraine by encouraging the application of international humanitarian law, especially policies regarding the protection of cultural property regulated in the 1954 Hague Convention. Apart from that, it was also found that regulations regarding the protection of historical buildings such as cultural heritage, only protect repressively, not preventively.

 

Keywords: Destruction, Cultural Heritage, Ukrainian-Russian War

BACKGROUND

In February 2022, Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine, marking the beginning of a two-year-long exhausting journey for Ukraine. The war has inflicted unprecedented damage, resulting in the destruction of numerous significant and historically important buildings including cultural heritage. The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (UN Special Rapporteur) noted that cultural heritage should be understood as “living and in an organic relationship with human beings,” a perspective which “encourages its preservation and discourages its destruction. In the midst of war and massive destruction of cultural heritage in Ukraine caused by Russian Invasion, Ukraine remains resolute and refuses to surrender. The massive destruction has not only caused irreparable harm to important structures but has also created a challenging environment throughout the country. By 2023, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (MCIP) calculated that 664 sites of the cultural heritage of Ukraine were damaged or destroyed. Furthermore, UNESCO also verified that 343 sites, including 127 religious sites, 151 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 31 museums, 19 monuments, 14 libraries, and 1 archive have been damaged since February 2022 until February 2024. This destruction signals a serious international law problem, as international law covers the protection of key buildings.

International law stipulates that objects and sites of cultural, religious, or historical importance benefit from additional protection based on treaty and customary international law. More clearly, Article 38 of The Geneva Convention 1949 states that parties to the conflict shall avoid damage to buildings dedicated to religious, artistic, scientific, educational or charitable purposes and historical monuments unless such buildings are used for military purposes.  The rules for protecting important buildings are also outlined in the 1945 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Russia and Ukraine are parties. This convention applies to both movable and immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every person. The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (UN Special Rapporteur) noted that cultural heritage should be understood as “living and in an organic relationship with human beings,” a perspective which “encourages its preservation and discourages its destruction.

The International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), a group of experts that updated the 1945 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, has actively taken measures to safeguard Ukraine's cultural heritage buildings. Named after the protective symbol in the 1954 Hague Convention, the blue and white shield, the ICBS has also adopted the Hague Convention symbol as its logo. The organization was formed through meetings between ICOMOS and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and later decided to expand its scope to include UNESCO. In 1996, the ICBS was formally registered as a standing emergency coordination and response committee of four non-governmental organizations in Paris, with UNESCO and the International Centre for Conservation (ICCROM). Today, the ICBS is understood by some as the international equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent, used to mark both protected cultural property and cultural heritage professionals. Amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the ICBS has expressed deep concern regarding the destruction of Ukraine's cultural heritage due to the Russian invasion. As a response to this concern, the Blue Shield actively works in Ukraine, supporting colleagues in safeguarding the country's heritage and assessing measures for recovery, restoration, and repair.

The considerable support provided by ICBS under The Hague Convention has played a vital role in assisting Ukraine in recovering, restoring, and repairing its cultural heritage. The UN General Assembly managed to expel Russian from the Human Rights Council but the complete expulsion from the organization is not feasible. It is because according to Articles 5 and 6 of the United Nations Charter, only the Security Council, including Russia as a permanent member, has the authority for suspension or expulsion measures. The likelihood of Russia being expelled from this decision-making council is low, given that any changes would require unanimous approval from the Council. Similarly, in the context of preserving cultural property, UNESCO lacks the authority to independently intervene, either through sanctions or military means. It is why some people declare that the international regulations are still inadequate to guarantee an effective and concrete system of protection for cultural assets. However, UNESCO has demonstrated effectiveness in actively contributing to the partial restoration of a collective sense of security. 

Hence, many efforts have been made by the international committee through the protection afforded by international law. However, regulations need to be amended to have a significant impact on the protection of Ukraine. Therefore, this article will discuss how international law supports Ukraine amidst its conflict with Russia and will delve into the study of cultural heritage protection in Ukraine under international law to determine its effectiveness.

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PROBLEM IDENTIFICATION

  1. How is international law, particularly the efforts of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) to protect Ukraine's cultural heritage amid the conflicts based on The Hague Convention?

  2. Has the protection under international law of Ukraine's cultural heritage devastated by the war with Russia been effective?

METHOD

This article employs a legal research approach that examines the present circumstances in Ukraine and Russia, conducting thorough investigations through scholarly journals, articles, and various library resources. The primary goal of this research is to gather information regarding the safeguarding of cultural heritage amidst conflicts, with a focus on international law perspectives.

ANALYSIS

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The efforts of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) to Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage amid the conflicts based on international law, particularly The Hague Convention

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues to inflict significant damage on Ukraine's rich cultural heritage, posing ongoing threats and challenges. In response to these challenges, the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) stands as a dedicated international organization committed to protect the cultural heritage in armed conflict. Anchored from the Hague Convention, the mission of ICBS is the preservation and respect of cultural assets, including heritage sites. By establishing and promoting standards for risk mitigation and training experts at regional and national levels, the ICBS aims to enhance preparedness and resilience against disasters. Moreover, the committee actively engages in public awareness campaigns to underscore the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage. Through proactive measures such as disaster prevention programs and post-crisis rebuilding initiatives, the ICBS works tirelessly to mitigate the impact of conflicts and natural disasters. Furthermore, it plays a vital role in mobilizing resources for swift intervention during emergencies.  Across the globe, the ICBS has spearheaded numerous initiatives to safeguard cultural heritage in line with the Hague Convention, including in conflict zones like Ukraine, demonstrating its unwavering commitment to preserving our world’s shared heritage.

In the midst of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, there are growing concerns regarding the safety and security of Ukraine's national monuments, which are recognized as an essential part of the country's cultural heritage. Recently, the Kiev History Museum reported damage to the ICBS, which promptly responded with attention and concern. The ICBS has been actively engaged in safeguarding Ukraine's cultural heritage and has been successful in mobilizing support from the international community, especially the heritage community, to raise awareness about the potential risks facing cultural properties, including those in Ukraine. This collective effort has drawn significant global attention to Ukraine's situation. The ICBS recognizes the critical importance of preserving Ukraine's historical, artistic, and scientific heritage and welcomes the recent establishment of a Blue Shield National Committee for Ukraine as one of the ways to support Ukraine’s cultural heritage amid the conflicts. The ICBS strongly supports the Ukrainian National Committee's initiative to safeguard the country's diverse cultural heritage and its efforts to coordinate and document cultural assets. ICBS believes it is crucial to work collaboratively to ensure the protection of Ukraine's cultural heritage and they really appreciate the efforts of all stakeholders in this regard.

The ICBS also shows their sympathy for Ukraine’s damage by reviewing the policies and authorities as well as continuing to promote the implementation of international humanitarian law, specifically the policy regarding the protection of cultural property outlined in the Hague Convention of 1954. This convention was adopted to underscore the notion that damage to cultural property belonging to any people equates to damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, as each individual makes a contribution to the culture of the world. It is also to notify people the importance of the world’s heritage should receive international protection.  Given that Ukraine's cultural heritage has suffered damage due to the attack from Russian invasion, the ICBS endeavors to mobilize people around the world to come together and assist Ukraine in addressing this issue. Besides that, the ICBS strives to implement the article of the Hague Convention and support the implementation of this convention as for the protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. Furthermore, the ICBS has engaged with the representatives of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, Directorates of International Law, and Humanitarian Affairs to facilitate coordination of diverse capabilities across the Ministry to support cultural heritage protection as for their effort to solve the cultural heritage damages problems. 

The ICBS put its effort into protecting and supporting Ukraine’s cultural heritage through many aspects. The ICBS also tends to bring Russia to the International Court for causing damage and targeting the cultural heritage as an object to destroy. Nevertheless, ICBS is still in the process of collecting the proof and evidence from all available digital imagery they have. The ICBS stated that one of the cultural institutions cited is an important art and local history museum in the Kyiv oblast. This museum is strongly linked to Ukrainian identity and was located in an area formerly occupied by Russian troops. The ICBS was thinking that the action of burning and destroying the museum was on purpose since the museum was burned out while the nearby village and adjacent houses remained undamaged. To send this action to the international court, the ICBS collected the testimony from eyewitnesses, and the witness stated that the museum was destroyed by a single rocket or artillery strike. However, the ICBS president is still in the process of earning more evidence since the evidence they have is not enough yet to proceed to the international court.    Nonetheless, the ICBS is still on the side of helping and protecting Ukraine's cultural heritage as it is the responsibility of all humans in the world. 

 

The effectiveness of protection under International Law of Ukraine’s cultural heritage destroyed by the war with Russia

 

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has caused many buildings in Ukrainian areas to be destroyed due to Russian attacks. This  has raised numerous concerns because the buildings that are attacked or become targets of attack are not only military buildings, but  also civilian buildings such as residents' houses, public facilities, or even cultural heritage such as museums, religious buildings, and other historical buildings. It would be very unfortunate if a building with historical value was destroyed due to direct or indirect attacks on the building. Therefore, to prevent invaluable losses, international organizations have formed international regulations whose main aim is to prevent conflict attacks targeting civilian buildings, especially cultural heritage buildings such as museums or places of worship. Today, many international law instruments, as the 1954 Hague Convention,  and international organizations, as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provide hard and soft law instruments prohibiting cultural heritage destruction in situations of armed conflict and times of peace.   There are three main treaties on the theft of cultural property: The 1954 Hague Convention, UNESCO, and UNIDROIT. 

Emerging from the horrors and devastations of the Second World War, the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (‘Hague Convention’) became the first international instrument to focus solely on the preservation of cultural property during conflicts.   Article 1 of The 1954 Hague Convention defines the term “cultural property” shall cover “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people; buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph; centers containing a large amount of cultural property”. In Article 2, the protection of cultural property shall comprise the safeguarding of and respect for such property. Then, Article 4 of the Hague Convention requires its States Parties to respect the cultural property located on the territories of States Parties. This means that States parties must prohibit, prevent and put an end to any theft, pillage, misappropriation and vandalism directed against cultural property, and refrain from reprisals against it. More importantly, it also means that States Parties must refrain from exposing cultural property and its immediate surroundings to destruction or damage, and from any acts of hostility directed against such property.

Various regulations for protecting cultural property or cultural heritage in armed conflict apply to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. However, as long as this conflict continues, regulations regarding the protection of cultural heritage appear to be ineffective in preventive efforts. International rules seem to be only intended for repressive measures that are enforced after the conflict is over, not to prevent damage to cultural property. Therefore, cultural property is actually not safe from attacks during armed conflict. Moreover, civilian objects, including cultural property, can still be legitimate military targets if they contribute effectively to military action by virtue of their nature, location, purpose or use (such as if troops are stationed in a museum), and if the capture, neutralization or redeployment of the property the culture offered definite military advantages (and was not simply a matter of military convenience).

International law is considered to have gaps in the applicable regulations. There are three major gaps in the existing law on repatriation: the lack of a forum to resolve disputes, weak obligations to return stolen cultural property, and minimal adoption of the UNIDROIT Convention. As it stands, there is no explicit call for repatriation when a State Party loots art. State Parties must rely on their own courts, which may lack jurisdiction or authority to enforce judgments.   Moreover, Agreements regarding the theft of cultural property are not customary international law so it is difficult for countries to comply with their agreements. To minimize attacks on cultural property, international law considers attacks on cultural heritage a war crime and can be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court. Article 7 (1) (h) ICC Statute states that “Such attacks may also be considered a crime against humanity when they amount to persecution, if they are “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack […] against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender […], or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law”.   However, this effort is a repressive step that cannot completely prevent a party from carrying out acts of destruction of cultural heritage.

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CONCLUSION

The ongoing Russia–Ukraine conflict has caused grave harm to Ukraine's cultural heritage that in turn unmasks remarkable gaps and failures within the international legal regime safeguarding these assets in times of war. Even though international agreements, such as the 1954 Hague Convention, and organizations like the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), have met important achievements regarding cultural heritage safeguarding matters, they are mainly framed towards post-conflict negative repression measures rather than positive preventive policies. In the meantime, this reactive approach has not been successful to fully prevent any deliberate as well as unintentional wartime destruction and cultural sites could continue to be under risk amidst ongoing military operations.

The efforts by the ICBS have been instrumental in raising global awareness and mobilizing resources to safeguard and restore damaged cultural sites in Ukraine. The ICBS has been particularly effective in advocating for the implementation of international humanitarian laws and supporting Ukraine through various initiatives aimed at protecting its cultural heritage, such as public awareness campaigns, disaster prevention programs, and mobilizing international support for Ukraine’s cultural heritage. Despite these commendable efforts, the existing legal instruments have shown limited effectiveness in mitigating the immediate threats posed by warfare. The prevailing legal frameworks lack the necessary enforceable measures to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage during active conflicts, highlighting the need for a more proactive approach.

Therefore, there is a need to establish more enforceable international standards that will ensure multiple levels of protection of cultural heritage, specially in the areas affected by conflict. Following the downturn, there will be a requirement for more elaborate policies that blend prevention with enforcement and encourage increased international collaboration. In the fight against further cases, it is desperately needed now to include proactive protection plans in strengthening the legal framework as well as enhancing international collaboration and resource distribution. Closing these gaps will enable the international community to safeguard cultural heritage while maintaining it for future generations despite periods of conflict. All these diverse approaches will not only secure our cultural heritage, but also secure the common inheritance of humanity, emphasizing that we must protect the world’s overall history and identity.

REFERENCES

Article 38 of The Geneva Convention 1949 

Andriy Kostin, “The Russian assault on Ukraine’s heritage,” International Bar Association, February 28, 2024, https://www.ibanet.org/The-Russian-assault-on-Ukraines-heritage#:~:text=It%20also%20prohibits%20their%20use,tenet%20of%20customary%20international%20law.

Botti, Federica, and Cristina Bianchi. "Cultural Heritage and Religious Phenomenon between Urbicide and Cancel Culture: The Other Side of the Russian–Ukrainian Conflict." Religions 14, no. 4 (2023). 

Blue Shield Statement on Ukraine – IFLA, n.d. https://www.ifla.org/publications/blue-shield-statement-on-ukraine/ 

Brenna Keane, “Does International Law have an Effective Framework to Address the Looting of Cultural Property as Seen in Ukraine?” Michigan Journal of International Law (April, 2023) 

Cunliffe, E. (2023, June 1). BSI supports cultural protection law in Ukraine. Blue Shield International. https://theblueshield.org/bsi-supports-cultural-protection-law-ukraine/ 

Kristin Hausler and Berenika Drazewska, “How does international law protect Ukrainian cultural heritage in war? Is it protected differently than other civilian objects?” British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 1.

Newcastle University, “Cultural Heritage Protection in Armed Conflict,” https://research.ncl.ac.uk/chp-conflict-and-displacement/resources/internationallawandchprotection/#:~:text=Today%2C%20many%20international%20law%20instruments,conflict%20and%20times%20of%20peace

Robert Bevan, “Heritage Destruction Brings Putin One Step Closer to Prosecution, According to Landmark Report,” The Art Newspaper - International Art News and Events, September 13, 2023, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/09/13/heritage-destruction-brings-putin-one-step-closer-to-prosecution-according-to-landmark-report

The Blue Shield International, “International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) - Blue Shield International,” Blue Shield International, February 17, 2022, https://theblueshield.org/about-us/history/international-committee-of-the-blue-shield-icbs/

The Author is an undergraduate student in Faculty of Law, Padjadjaran University, Bandung, sandra22001@mail.unpad.ac.id 

The Author is an undergraduate student in Faculty of Law, Padjadjaran University, Bandung, nalendra22001@mail.unpad.ac.id 

Alice Smahina, “Capture or destroy: 18 monuments of Ukrainian architecture that Russia destroyed”, Rubryka, September 21, 2023, “https://rubryka.com/en/article/18-pamyatok-arhitektury-yaki-zrujnuvala-rosiya/ 

Article 38 of The Geneva Convention 1949 

The Blue Shield International, “International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) - Blue Shield International,” Blue Shield International, February 17, 2022, https://theblueshield.org/about-us/history/international-committee-of-the-blue-shield-icbs/

Botti, Federica, and Cristina Bianchi. "Cultural Heritage and Religious Phenomenon between Urbicide and Cancel Culture: The Other Side of the Russian–Ukrainian Conflict." Religions 14, no. 4 (2023): 535.

The Blue Shield International, Op. Cit.

“Blue Shield Statement on Ukraine – IFLA,” n.d. https://www.ifla.org/publications/blue-shield-statement-on-ukraine/ 

Unesco. Final act of the Intergovernmental Conference on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, The Hague, 1954. Unesco, 1954. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000082464 

Cunliffe, E. (2023, June 1). BSI supports cultural protection law in Ukraine. Blue Shield International. https://theblueshield.org/bsi-supports-cultural-protection-law-ukraine/ 

Robert Bevan, “Heritage Destruction Brings Putin One Step Closer to Prosecution, According to Landmark Report,” The Art Newspaper - International Art News and Events, September 13, 2023, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/09/13/heritage-destruction-brings-putin-one-step-closer-to-prosecution-according-to-landmark-report

Newcastle University, “Cultural Heritage Protection in Armed Conflict,” https://research.ncl.ac.uk/chp-conflict-and-displacement/resources/internationallawandchprotection/#:~:text=Today%2C%20many%20international%20law%20instruments,conflict%20and%20times%20of%20peace

Brenna Keane, “Does International Law have an Effective Framework to Address the Looting of Cultural Property as Seen in Ukraine?” Michigan Journal of International Law (April, 2023)

Andriy Kostin, “The Russian assault on Ukraine’s heritage,” International Bar Association, February 28, 2024, https://www.ibanet.org/The-Russian-assault-on-Ukraines-heritage#:~:text=It%20also%20prohibits%20their%20use,tenet%20of%20customary%20international%20law.

Kristin Hausler and Berenika Drazewska, “How does international law protect Ukrainian cultural heritage in war? Is it protected differently than other civilian objects?” British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 1.

Ibid. 

Newcastle University, op. Cit.

Kristin Hausler and Berenika Drazewska, op. cit.

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