Is Gaddafi trying to unlawfully exploit the 1954 Hague Convention?

Rich archaeological patrimony in danger

Published on 15 June 2011

Author(s): Culture Conflict and Cooperation/Patrizia La Piscopia

Type:  Blog

We do not know what is really happening in Leptis Magna, and in all the other archaeological sites of the region

When the situation in Libya started precipitating a number of concerned voices pointed out that the rich archaeological patrimony of the country was in danger. Many mentioned the 5 World Heritage Sites and the two major museums, others reminded us of the vastness of the whole prehistoric archaeological heritage.

An example is the statement issued by the Blue Shield in which appears a reminder of the fact that 'Libya is a party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict since 1957, and became a party to the Second Protocol of this convention in 2001'. As we know from today's news Geddafi's troupes are very much aware of the provisions of this convention; and probably, they are intentionally breaking them in the hope of moving public opinion against the NATO intervention in the country.

As we know the members of the 1954 Hague Convention agreed to refrain from 'any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict;' However, the protection, granted by the Convention to Cultural Heritage, is lost when such property is used for military purposes. And this is exactely what seems to be happening now to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Leptis Magna, located at 130 km east of Tripoli.

In fact, rebel sources reported that Gaddafi troops have stashed on site rocket launchers and other military equipment. If this news is confirmed, it means that the ancient ruins, used for military purposes have lost their protection and, in the eyes of the NATO officials overseeing the campaign of aerial bombing in Libya, the archaeological site has become a legitimate and lawful target. As the CNN reports, the alliance is not ready to release declarations on this issue and, with caution, they are communicating that they could not verify the reliability of rebels claims. This certainly means that no action will be taken for the time being, but things could rapidly change.

What would be extremely interesting to discuss now is how breaching International Law can become a weapon in itself. It does not seem too unrealistic that an archaeological site has been used by the Geddafi's men to store or 'hide' military equipment; but, what would be the advantage for them? And what would the rebel be gaining by spreading this news? Well, certainly Geddafi is not the kind of leader that plays by the rules, and such an action could have been conceived as provocation to push his adversary towards a controversial  decision.

If the NATO raids were to hit the World Heritage Site this would certainly be detrimental for the image of the mission. What for military experts is a legitimate target, in the eyes of the public opinion is more likely to be seen simply as an important archaeological site that should have been spared. In this case lawful military action could back fire becoming a failure under the point of view of media communication, playing a delegitimising role at international level.

On the other hand, the rebels could have fabricated this news knowing that mass media would have magnified it to the point that it would have become an other tessera composing the image of the ruthless dictator, the man who attacks the civilian population of his own country, the man who hires mercenaries, the man that threatens the whole mediterranean and, if this was not enough, also the man who is ready to put in danger his national heritage in order to maintain his power and defeat the rebels supported by the international community.

We do not know what is really happening in Leptis Magna, and in all the other archaeological sites of the region, at this stage it all boils down to mere speculation. However, this news can certainly be considered as a warning. Once again cultural heritage is on the line of fire risking to be turned, in a way or an other, in a propaganda tool.

International law provisions exist and are designed to create obligations to take positive steps to protect cultural heritage, but realistically what is at stake during an armed conflict is victory. For some this comes through legitimisation, for others this has to come at any cost, even if this means to commit unlawful actions or in the worse case, war crimes!

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