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Signing up to the Hague Convention will do nothing to stop ISIS

30 June 2015

It would seem like there is good news in regard to the dreadful destruction of cultural heritage that continues apace. The new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has committed the Conservative government to ratifying the Hague Convention on cultural property, as a response to the ‘devastating’ destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq.

The Hague Convention is an international treaty, set up after the Second World War in the wake of the Nazis’ destruction and looting of art, that requires its signatories to protect cultural property in times of war. As of last year it had been ratified by 126 states, including, in 2009, the United States, but not Andorra, Ireland, Philippines, or the United Kingdom – until now. Or, at least, almost now. Mr Whittingdale says the government will bring forward new legislation, ‘At the first opportunity’, but has neglected to mention when that first opportunity will be.

Which isn’t a first. Since 2004 various assurances have been made that the UK will sign the treaty. Tony Blair’s government pledged to ratify it, but didn’t. Successive governments also failed to find Parliamentary time to approve the necessary legislation, despite the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition reiterating its support.

Still: should we rejoice, if tentatively, trusting that the first opportunity will be found? Many people took to social media to raise a cheer at Whittingdale’s announcement, but I cannot join in. You may think that, in the face of the current obliteration of historic sites and monuments, any step towards doing something should be welcomed, but that’s being generous and probably naive.

Under the Convention, States Parties are obliged ‘respect’ cultural property in their or other territory. The Convention prohibits attacking cultural property, unless it is of ‘imperative military necessity’ and State Parties undertake to safeguard against the foreseeable effects of armed conflict on cultural property, by means of peacetime preparations at home: putting in place measures for the regulation and training of the armed forces; and provisions, if they so choose, for the marking of identified cultural property with the Convention’s emblem of a blue and white quartered shield.

That’s all fine, if a little vague, but there is nothing here that will stop Islamic State from smashing up important heritage, nor could there be – the law cannot prevent such atrocities.

One reason given for why the UK Government did not to ratify the Convention, when it was first drafted, was because it was felt the Convention did not provide an effective regime for the protection of cultural property. The introduction of a Second Protocol, in 1999, is supposed to have removed this concern, because it sets out criminal sanctions.

According to Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, ‘The ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention demonstrates the UK’s determination to protect heritage worldwide. In announcing new legislation to take this forward, we send a clear signal to those who threaten cultural assets: your crimes will not go unpunished.’

I bet the Islamic State are shaking in their boots.

Surely the signal it sends out is that we are powerless, unable to even get it together to ratify a convention. I don’t mean to be churlish, but we owe it to ourselves – and that which we would like to protect – to be honest. Ratification may not even happen, and if it does, it won’t mean much. It’s a distraction that will allow us to kid ourselves that we are doing something good.

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