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Monday, February 24, 2020

Explained: Why an American attack on Iran’s cultural sites could constitute a war crime

Iran is home to one of the world's oldest civilisations dating back to 10,000 BC. Its rich heritage and culture is an amalgam of Arab, Persian, Turkish and South Asian cultures.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata | Updated: January 8, 2020 9:44:02 am
iran Qassem Soleimani killing, US Iran general Qassem Soleimani killing, Donald Trump, Iran, Iran-US tensions, Iran air strikes, World news, Indian Express Masjed-e Jamé of Isfahan in Iran. (Source: UNESCO)

Following the assassination of Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani, President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday that if “Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets” in retaliation, the US would target 52 sites in Iran, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”.

It was not clear what Trump would achieve by deliberately destroying Iran’s cultural heritage, but such a step, should he follow through on his threat, could be considered a war crime.

Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations dating back to 10,000 BC. Its rich heritage and culture is an amalgam of Arab, Persian, Turkish and South Asian cultures.

Twenty-four Iranian sites are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, two of which are natural sites and the rest cultural sites. Among the main World Heritage Sites in Iran are the Meidan Emam and Masjed-e-Jame in Isfahan; the Golestan Palace in the historic heart of Tehran; Pasargadae and Persepolis, capitals of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus II and Darius I in the 6th century BC; and the archaeological site of Takht-e Soleyman, which has the remains of an ancient Zoroastrian sanctuary.

What is the problem with targeting cultural heritage?

Following the unparalleled destruction of cultural heritage in World War II, the nations of the world adopted at The Hague in 1954, The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the first international treaty focussed exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage during war and armed conflict.

The Convention defined cultural property as “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites….”, etc. The signatories, referred to in the Convention as “the High Contracting Parties”, committed themselves to protecting, safeguarding, and having respect for cultural property.

There are currently 133 signatories to Convention, including countries that have acceded to and ratified the treaty. Both the United States and Iran (as well as India) signed the Convention on May 14, 1954, and it entered into force on August 7, 1956.

The Rome Statute of 1998, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, describes as a “war crime” any intentional attack against a historical monument, or a building dedicated to religion, education, art, or science. The International Criminal Court started functioning in 2002 with jurisdiction over four main crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

Article 8 of the Rome Statute deals with war crimes. Article 8(2)(b)(ii) says war crimes include “intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives”, and 8(2)(b)(ix) mentions “intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives”.

122 countries are States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The United States is a signatory that has not ratified the Statute. India has neither signed nor ratified the Statute.

Is it likely that the US will in fact, attack these sites? Following Trump’s threats, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News: “We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system. We always have and we always will.”

To CNN, Pompeo said, “We will be bold in protecting American interests and we’ll do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law… President Trump’s tweet doesn’t deviate from that one iota.” Pressed on whether “cultural centres” were fair targets, Pompeo said: “We’re going to do the things that are right and the things that are consistent with American law.”

Trump himself has been direct, underlining that he meant what he tweeted.

“They’re (the Iranians) allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the President told reporters on Sunday. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

How has Iran responded to Trump’s threats?

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter: “A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage: Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries. Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

Separately, he tweeted: “Having committed grave breaches of int[ernationa]l law in Friday’s cowardly assassinations, @realdonaldtrump threatens to commit again new breaches of JUS COGENS; targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME…”

When has cultural property been targeted earlier?

There are several examples from World War II and later.

* During the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991-92 by the Yugoslav People’s Army, the old town of Dubrovnik in Croatia was targeted in an attempt to wipe out Croatian history and cultural heritage. Subsequently, during the Croat-Bosniak war, Croat paramilitary forces destroyed the 16th century Stari Most bridge in Mostar in today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1993.

* In 2001, the Taliban destroyed statutes of the Buddha that had been carved into sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.

* In 2006, the UN and the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to prosecute the destruction of Cambodia’s cultural assets that included mosques, churches and temples along with other sites of cultural significance.

* Between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State destroyed several places of religious and cultural significance. In 2015, the IS captured and destroyed the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Don’t miss from Explained | JUS COGENS: The Latin term that Iran invoked after Trump threatened to target its cultural sites

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