Video has emerged from the Middle East, particularly Mosul, showing members of ISIS destroying ancient cultural artifacts. Such wanton destruction of the world’s cultural heritage is heartbreaking. I cannot bring myself to watch the videos, and found that I couldn’t even get through the stories. The last words I read were “7th century Assyrian”. As an historian, I know that when one culture wants to erase another, the first thing it does is destroy its art. Over the centuries, and in response to this type of destruction, nations have signed treaties agreeing to protect and preserve items of cultural heritage, even in times of war. After the terrible destruction of historic monuments, art and literature after World War II, the United Nations adopted the Hague Convention of 1954, the first international treaty that aimed to protect the world’s cultural heritage in times of conflict. The International Committee of the Blue Shield works internationally to protect the world’s cultural heritage. The symbol of a blue shield was adopted as an international symbol (similar in idea to the Red Cross) to mark cultural heritage sites. The idea behind it was that sites or buildings that carried this symbol should be respected by combatants. That in times of war, some things must be respected and there are some lines that should not be crossed.
But this presupposes that combatants act in a civilized manner. And the members of ISIS have shown over and over again that they behave in anything but a civilized manner. Like many UN groups, Blue Shield has no legal authority to act. The most it can do is call out for a boycott of the black market that has developed and attempt to intercept sales. Given the danger in that region, I doubt that there is any chance at evacuating items. The items that ISIS doesn’t destroy, it sells on the black market for funding. After the looting in Egypt, there was some success within the international community at intercepting illegal sales. But the difference there (as well as the looting of the Baghdad Museum) was that the looters were primarily interested in profit. For ISIS, the profit is secondary..they are primarily interested destroying everything that conflicts with their world view. And, well…that seems to be just about everything.
We should be paying close attention to this. This area is not called the “cradle of civilization” for nothing. This isn’t just about the cultural heritage of the Middle East, it is about the heritage and history of the world. And ISIS should be held accountable for this crime against humanity.