What’s a War Crime Gotta Do To Get Some Attention?

8 February 2019, 1021 EST

This is a guest post by Betcy Jose and Alessa Sänger. Jose is currently a Fellow in the Cluster of Excellence: Formation of Normative Orders at Goethe University. Sänger is pursuing a Master Degree in Curatorial Studies at Goethe Universität and Städelschule and is a collection assistant in the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

In a speech at UNESCO just days after a horrific terrorist attack in Paris for which DAESH claimed responsibility, French President Hollande declared, “the right to asylum applies to people… but asylum also applies to works, world heritage.”  In that same speech, Hollande vowed to advance a legal framework in the Parliament that would aid in the safekeeping of threatened cultural heritage.  DAESH has notoriously destroyed priceless cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq or sold it on the black market to fund its activities, much to the horror and despair of the global community. 

Article 53 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (API) states that it is a crime to “to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.”  Various segments of the global community have condemned DAESH’s actions and called for efforts to stop it or temporarily safeguard these objects until they can be safely returned.  France’s pledge to offer safe haven to these valuable treasures was in response to these efforts and warmly welcomed by many activists who had long pressed for more attention to this vital issue with limited success.

What’s interesting about this speech is why France chose to make such a strong and public statement on this war crime and not another one that’s also been long neglected: the destruction of the environment during the Syrian war. 

Article 35 of API says that, “It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment,” and according to Article 54, “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as… drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party…”

There are a number of reasons why France’s war crime selection is curious.  First, a few weeks after Hollande’s speech, France would host the UN Climate Change Conference.  Given this conference’s monumental significance, one might expect war crimes related to the environment to receive more attention than those connected to cultural heritage, even if they aren’t directly related to climate change. 

Second, UNESCO, where Hollande gave this speech, is not only tasked with protecting cultural heritage but also the environment.  For instance, one of its programs focuses on water security. So it would not be unexpected for France to make a commitment to protecting environments in war at UNESCO.

Third, the humanitarian impact of wartime environmental damage is enormous.  Sowers et al. posit that the “intentional targeting of environmental infrastructure [in Syria] not only creates immediate humanitarian suffering but also perpetuates a cycle of poverty as children spend their days searching for essential resources… instead of attending school”.  A Stanford researcher team estimates that from the start of the Syrian war to 2015, irrigated land has diminished by 47% and water reservoirs by 49%.  (Interestingly, there’s also been more scholarly interest in whether and how climate change correlates with the outbreak of war than war’s impact on the environment).  Such environmental damage contributes to refugee flows.  Given that France, like its European counterparts, is grappling with the widespread ramifications of populist anger against admitting more refugees, one would have expected this to be a more salient issue than cultural heritage.

That the international community is finally making a more concerted effort to protect cultural heritage is tremendously welcome news.  But for the reasons we’ve discussed here, it is a puzzle why wartime cultural heritage crimes are having a moment and not environmental war crimes. 

Charli Carpenter offers a possible answer to this puzzle: an advocacy organization occupying a central role in the war crimes network has not yet decided to take up the issue of environmental war crimes.  According to her research on weapons bans, once a highly visible central hub (and not necessarily one that is well-resourced) takes up an issue, it can have a contagion effect on the rest of the network. It doesn’t even need to devote a lot of effort on the issue for it to have this effect.  It just needs to name it as one worthy of attention.  From there, the chances of the issue getting on the agenda of key states and other influential actors increase significantly. 

It’s a theory worth pondering within this issue area.  How much traction would it provide in understanding France’s agenda-vetting and the efforts of a norm entrepreneur on this issue, the Toxic Remnants of War Network?  Further questions center around how to increase attention to wartime environmental damage so that a central hub adopts it.  Would linking it to its more salient counterpart help?  One example of this is the linkage between art auctions and environmental issues proposed by Christie‘s former co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, Loic Gouzer. In a publicly shared Instagram post using the hashtag #ecoside and #utopia, Gouzer implied auctioning off endangered species’ protection in an attempt to transfer the prestige of buying art to environment-related activism.

A less provocative approach might include expanding common ideas of what constitutes cultural heritage to include the environment. For example, a newly independent Indonesia included landscapes, widely endeared in the country, in its definition of cultural heritage worthy of legal protections in a bid to unify its diverse population.  Would such an approach allow environmental war crimes to benefit from the attention cultural heritage war crimes currently receives?

This post has raised a lot of questions and offered few answers.  They will be coming soon- stay tuned!