September 7, 2005

The British Government & the 1954 Hague convention

Posted at 10:09 pm in British Museum

After many years of refusing the sign up to the treaty, the British Government finally decided last year to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention. This is an act, that is designed to protect valuable artefacts during wars & is in many ways a precursor to the later UNESCO conventions dealing with cultural property & its destruction / trafficking within a much wider scope.
If only we took as much care in preserving other countries culture in-situ, as we are in protecting our own.

The Guardian

In case of war: nominations sought for list of cultural treasures to be saved at all costs
Owen Bowcott
Wednesday September 7, 2005
The Guardian

Ever considered saving for the day after Armageddon? That opportunity has now arrived. To preserve the nation’s heritage in the event of war, the government yesterday launched a consultation process.

Nominations for the country’s most valuable cultural treasures are being sought so they can be protected by a blue shield emblem – theoretically powerful enough to ward off marauding enemies.

The decision to open the debate has nothing to do with the heightened state of terror alerts or jittery generals eventually recognising the danger posed by nuclear weapons. It does, however, follow a belated change of heart.

United Kingdom politicians had for decades insisted that the 1954 Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict “did not provide an effective regime” for its declared purpose.

Until last year, when the government announced its intention to ratify the treaty. The looting of museums in Baghdad and the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq provided a timely warning about their vulnerability.

Under the terms of the convention, the UK has to specify which “movable or immovable” cultural properties should receive either “general”, “special” or “enhanced” protection. It also has to decide whether to label them with “a distinctive [blue shield] emblem so as to facilitate recognition”.

Launching a consultation paper in London yesterday, David Lammy, the minister for culture, explained: “Ratification of the convention and accession to its [two] protocols will strengthen the UK’s commitment to the protection of our own heritage, highlight our civil duty as part of an international community to respect the cultural property of other nations and demonstrate that the UK takes seriously its commitments in the area of international humanitarian law.”

The treaty attempts an ambitious reconciliation of two diametrically opposed patterns of behaviour: humanity’s capacity for destruction and its desire to understand itself through accumulated artistic and cultural artefacts.

Efforts to limit the impact of war have, at times, been highly effective. The Geneva convention of 1864 laid the foundations for the work of the Red Cross. A year earlier the Lieber code entered the statute books during the American civil war, stating that protected status should be accorded to libraries, scientific collections and artworks.

The Hague regulations of 1907 advanced the process, requiring signatory nations to desist, where possible, from bombarding buildings dedicated to religion, art or science, or historic monuments. But it was the devastation of the second world war that provided the final impetus to draw up the 1954 convention. One significant clause outlaws the export of cultural property from occupied territory.

Assembling the bureaucratic detail of what the UK should declare to potential enemies nonetheless suggests a division of the country into several categories: those buildings we do not mind being razed, those we would prefer to keep and those we must preserve – even over our dead bodies.

The consultation paper put forward by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) yesterday suggests that the top level of protection [enhanced status] should go only to world heritage sites such as Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, museum collections which are “national” such as the Tate and the British Museum, the National Record Office, and the country’s five legal deposit libraries.

Although the DCMS is the lead department, it is working closely with the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office.

In the consultation paper, Mr Lammy states: “Recently we have witnessed the full extent of the damage which an armed conflict can visit upon cultural property. The siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, the destruction of the old city and of the bridge in Mostar in 1993, the burning of the national library in Iraq and the looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003 have all left an unforgettable mark on the world’s cultural landscape.

“The 1954 Hague convention upholds the principle that damage to cultural property belonging to any country results in damage to the cultural heritage of all humanity … Efforts will be made to increase public awareness and ensure that military personnel are fully informed of the practicalities of this ratification.”

The need to produce a list of the buildings and monuments that most deserve protection follows from article three of the convention: “Parties … must prepare in peacetime to safeguard their own cultural property against foreseeable effects of armed conflict.”

The public and organisations have until December 2 to respond and make suggestions. Initial comments suggested some feared a bias towards ancient sites would devalue contemporary buildings.

Jack Pringle, the newly elected president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, yesterday said he would like to see the London Eye wheel, the Festival Hall and the TUC building – “a lovely example of early modernism” – survive Armageddon in the capital.

“Hopefully these sort of events will never happen,” he said, “but they have to be thought about. The tsunami and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate that terrible things do happen. It poses some very challenging questions about what belongings you would preserve. You can see the rationale behind what’s suggested [by the government] but there could be more made of libraries and there are some wonderful sets of building in our towns that are sites of urban importance.”

Delegates from more than 60 organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, yesterday attended a seminar in London on the implications of ratification. Whether listing the country’s most cherished institutions makes military sense in an era of terrorist atrocities may have been discussed. Perhaps the intelligence services could forward a list, with misleading addresses, to the Pakistani/Afghan border?

Winners and losers

Jonathan Glancey on the buildings he’d like to see saved – and the ones he’d love to see destroyed.

  1. Save: Medieval English parish churches. Collectively one of the world’s greatest works of vernacular art. Leave well alone.
  2. Save: Wren’s city churches. A precious necklace of architectural gems clasped around St Paul’s Cathedral. They have been bombed before by Hitler and the IRA. Twice is enough. Three times would look very unfortunate.
  3. Save: St Paul’s Cathedral: as with the Wren churches, minus the IRA. One of the world’s finest domes.
  4. Save: London Underground stations: favourite target of Hitler, IRA, Islamists, unloved, battered, but not altogether broken. They include superb designs by Charles Holden (1875-1960), one of England’s finest architects.
  5. Save: Royal Circus, Royal Crescent, etc, Bath. The Luftwaffe tried its best with the Baedeker raids. Developers, planners and local politicians did their best to assault Georgian Bath in the 1960s. Solace in stone. Keep away.
  6. Save: Portmeirion: a fantastic escape created for prisoners of 60s towns and cities everywhere by the peerless Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.
  7. Not to save: Channel 4 headquarters. Sorry about this. Lots of good sorts in a cheerful Richard Rogers building, but they are behind the down and coming Demolition series. Taste of own medicine.
  8. Not to save: The headquarters of Riba, the Royal Institute of British Architects, London. Tomb-like facade. Ocean liner interior. Good chaps, but champions of Demolition (see Channel 4).
  9. Not to save: New buildings in Thames Gateway. Bomb practice only. Lots of former artillery and rifle ranges here, so used to bangs. Land is sinking, prone to future major flooding. No one, except sailors and fishermen, should be living here.
  10. Not to save: Postmodern architecture. Collectively, one of the world’s greatest works of pseudoFrom-historical tat. Aim well.
  11. Not to save: None of the above, really.
  12. Well, maybe number 9.
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