Heritage Destruction In Syria Is A War Crime – OpEd


I imagine that it’s probably not politically correct among quite a few, including formerly this observer, 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 an anemic elusive “international political solution” anytime soon? Hence what is warranted for serious consideration at UN HQ and without further delay is a limited and tightly monitored UN-led intervention to end the destructon 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
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, killing 25 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, 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, it evolved into a major worshipping site for a number of deities.

According to locals, and to the surprise of some, Daesh (ISIS) loyalist religious purists have since last May been observed using the pagan temple Baalshamin to pray at Fajr (morning) prayers including 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.

Photo showing Baalshamin destruction on 8/23/2015
Photo showing Baalshamin destruction on 8/23/2015

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 the genocidal organizations, such as the Mongols, Nazism, Pol Pot and many others that preceded its arrival. Its cultural carnage clearly falls under the legal definition of a war crime and it is the submission of this observer that Director Bokova’s protestations have the force of UN doctrine behind them.

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 religion based ideology that they claim includes 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 increase their use of mustard gas and 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 that horrifies most of us.

International jurists generally agree that to employ R2P against those destroying archeological sites in Syrian along with our identity as a specie, there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring or imminently likely to occur. Moreover, that the main intention of the R2P action must be to prevent irreversible cultural cleansing, that there are reasonable grounds to believe that only military action would work in this particular case, that the R2P 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 would be worse than the consequences without the intervention. Lastly, 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 using 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 weeks bombing frenzy killing countless civilians and creating what we see today in what is left of Libya, to appreciate the need to strictly adhere to the above enumerated 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 of 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 admitted checkered past, Responsibility to Protect (R2P) 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 in our reactions to the war being waged to destroy our shared global culture.

Other relevant factors to be considered as the UN Security |Council meets on this subject of Syria, hopefully this week, include the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and in particular to 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 ICC’s doctrine on war crimes recognizes the apparent limitless nature of our specie’s 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, 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 that was adopted in August 2014. UNSCR 2170 condemns the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, including 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 imposes a new ban on the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria.

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 destructions 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 had 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 hardened international law in the sense of being a multinational treaty or enshrined in the UN Charter, law, it is based on respect for the principles that underlie international law, especially the underlying principles 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 achieved the status of international customary law.

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has its origins in the 1990’s failure to respond to tragedies 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 Kofi 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 wide international participation coalition force of fixed duration, perhaps subject to 90-day UN renewal, and to act on our shared international responsibility to preserve and protect Syria’s Endangered Heritage.

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

If we act quickly, despite the obstacles and fanaticism, human creativity can prevail, buildings and sites are able to be rehabilitated, and many, but not all that that have been destroyed, can be rebuilt.

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

Franklin Lamb, a former Assistant Counsel of the US House Judiciary Committee at the US Congress and Professor of International Law at Northwestern College of Law in Oregon, earned his Law Degree at Boston University and his LLM, M.Phil, and PhD degrees at the London School of Economics. Following three summers at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Lamb was a visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center where he specialized in Chinese Law. He was the first westerner allowed by the government of China to visit the notorious “Ward Street” Prison in Shanghai. Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and works with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon and the Sabra-Shatila Foundation. His new book, The Case for Palestinian Civil Rights in Lebanon, is due out shortly.

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