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Subtle Casualties: Conflict and Intangible Cultural Heritage

By Robert Seddon

On one page of the ICCROM document Protecting Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict, just below an image of a stone Buddha with the face blasted off, is a photograph of an apparently intact building, with the caption: ‘Intangible heritage affected during the military operations of 2007-2011 [against the Taliban insurgency]: people stopped coming to the Grand Shrine in Saidu Sharif, fearing for their security.’ Examples like this reveal a distinct and under-appreciated way in which war can threaten cultural heritage: the disruption of ways of life, rather than simple material damage.

When material heritage is destroyed in war, it’s obvious what the world is losing. In contrast, when people’s lives are disrupted and populations are dispersed by war, to point to the cultural loss involved might seem a distraction from the immediate humanitarian crisis. After all, nothing is more disruptive to cultural practices than being dead, and when refugees are fleeing mortal danger it might look odd to pause and ask them about culture. Yet the destruction of intangible heritage is a genuine loss. As Colin Kaiser comments on the consequences of the Bosnian War: ‘The reconstruction of an Ottoman mosque in a country town without Muslims is a symbolic act […]; it is not the reconstruction of a society.’ In such cases the physical scenery may be rebuilt and replaced post-war, but without the same cultural significance as before, because the cultural practices which formerly defined its purpose cannot be reconstructed in the same way.

“Ways of life never lie smashed on some museum floor; they come to a silent stop.”

Intangible cultural heritage is defined to include ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts’. Though the term has only quite recently gained broad recognition in international politics (UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2003 and entered into force in 2006), there is a growing consensus that, as Marcela Jaramillo Contreras puts it, ‘nowadays intangible cultural heritage is also considered very relevant in representing a community’s identity, and therefore it should be also protected during and after’ conflict. However, it does not yet enjoy the level of consideration which has been given to material heritage and its preservation. (The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which deals with material heritage in war, dates from the mid-Fifties.) Perhaps one reason for this is that practices break less dramatically than artefacts: in the case of intangible heritage there is no equivalent of the sombre photographs which followed the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, searing themselves into public consciousness. Ways of life never lie smashed on some museum floor; they come to a silent stop.

So how should a concern for the loss of intangible heritage be incorporated into our ethical thinking about war? Could it ever be justified to intervene militarily in another country in order to prevent such heritage from being destroyed? Conversely, could the predictable loss of valuable cultural practices make it impermissible to fight?

Perhaps the deepest problem for ethical judgment is how distant and diffuse the consequences of war can be for intangible heritage. In 2015 the Glasoechko musical tradition of Dolni Polog was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, because the ‘number of individuals and groups practising and transmitting it is diminishing rapidly due in part to persistent outward migration of its bearers following the civil war conflict in 2001’. Obviously it would be a stretch for those concerned with the ethics of a war to ask themselves, ‘What are the likely consequences of this conflict for male two-part singing in fourteen years’ time?’

Of course, this problem of distant consequences and difficult predictions affects both decisions to fight and decisions not to. As Peter Yu points out in his discussion of intervention to protect heritage, in cases of tangible heritage it is often nonintervention that most clearly risks its destruction (one thinks, for example, of the role of the destruction of Palmyra in mobilising public opinion against IS.) The same may be true for intangible heritage as well.

However, Yu also highlights a potential reason against the permissibility of intervention to protect intangible heritage, a reason that does not apply in the case of buildings and monuments. Since stories and songs and so forth can be recorded, and these recordings replicated in safer parts of the world, it ‘will be very hard to provide a strong justification’ for intervening for the sake of oral traditions.

Yet for many forms of living culture there is no form of recording that preserves more than a memory. As a speech published by ICOM puts it: ‘No amount of work in the museum alone can accomplish that goal. Living culture is preserved and transmitted through its continued social practice.’ The example given in the address is of the marsh Arabs of Iraq, whose livelihoods and living culture suffered when the marshlands were drained by Saddam Hussein (the very man whose removal in a later war would have the looting of the national museum as a side effect).

A further ethical question regarding the preservation of intangible heritage concerns what is known as jus post bellum, or justice after war. Ways of life, of course, are not all peaceful to begin with, and cultural practices may complicate post-conflict resolution: the traditions of sectarian parades in Northern Ireland are among the cases in point. Preservation of intangible cultural heritage sometimes overlaps with more familiar humanitarian objectives, such as protecting freedom of religious practice; but not all cultural practices will favour such objectives. Sometimes, as in the territory occupied by IS, it is the forceful imposition of one set of cultural practices, or one interpretation of how to practise them, which harms others. Sometimes, as in Northern Ireland, peacemaking will demand changes in longstanding ways of life: a laying down of arms, a rapprochement between traditional enemies. A concern for heritage should hardly make us less enthusiastic about peace, though it might help in managing the transition in ways that let all sides feel they retain their dignity. The preservation of the Emperor as head of state in post-war Japan is a notable case in which a traditional institution which had been associated with waging the war became central to a peaceful rehabilitation.

If we believe intangible cultural heritage is important, then, how are we to take account of it in practice? Buildings and monuments are observably either damaged or undamaged, and the most obvious thing to do in order to preserve them is to avoid firing in their direction. Intangible heritage may well prove trickier. As Birgit Bräuchler points out, the destruction of ‘social and cultural structures, relationships and identities is usually not visible, thus much more difficult to detect, but potentially more grave in its consequences and more difficult to heal’. Some things are plain enough to observe: whether an annual festival is taking place or not, or whether artisans are able to ply their trades. Yet even with the benefits of peacetime it may be unclear how healthy is the transmission of folklore, or whether a local cuisine is maintaining its place in the life of a community. Change can occur and be controversial even in times of perfect peace.

“Ways of life, of course, are not all peaceful to begin with, and cultural practices may complicate post-conflict resolution”

One important place to consider intangible heritage in the context of war is in the treatment of refugees. Some measures already exist to help them keep their cultures alive. An article published by the British Council describes one such scheme:

“there is often much more that can be done in that area, even while the conflict is raging. We have a partnership to that effect with Action For Hope, an organisation that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Initially a project that provided comfort to refugee families by helping them cook familiar, evocative and culturally important dishes, it has now expanded and become an important part of building resilience among them. Archives of photos, film footage, stories, poems and oral histories help those who normally see themselves as victims maintain their cultural identity and pride.”

Again, however, the best way to preserve heritage may more complicated than simply supporting some artistic traditions. The cultures of displaced people are entirely capable of clashing, both with each other and with host nations that wish to maintain their own manners and customs. The traditions it would be good to keep alive may not be trivially separated from the habits and doctrines that impede integration. As in the above example of Northern Ireland, a concern for cultural heritage may need to be traded off against other values.

Another suggestion is that questions of cultural impact be included in proportionality assessments of restrictive measures like military curfews and their effects on ways of life. A guidance booklet notes several ways in which occupying forces have taken responsibility for maintenance of local culture:

“An example is found in 1956 when the Sinai was occupied by Israeli forces. The Israelis assisted in the daily management of the monastery of St Katharina. They looked after visitors, provided the monks with food and investigated an attempted break-into the treasury of the monastery church.”

One complication which arises throughout the above discussion is the ever-vexing question of how the value of culture should be judged. UNESCO’s ethical principles for safeguarding intangible heritage state that ‘each community, group or individual should assess the value of its own intangible cultural heritage and this intangible cultural heritage should not be subject to external judgements of value or worth’. This suggests that priorities regarding intangible heritage should be the subject of dialogue with civilian populations, insofar as circumstances permit it. There will be cases, after all, in which preserving tradition’s status quo ante bellum is the last thing people want; few things disrupt culture like liberation.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations. 

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