Int’l Conventions on world heritage sites

The importance of implementation

Mashrur Ahmed Zidane | Saturday, 30 April 2022

In Bangladesh, people often complain about running out of places to visit, this is due to the fact that often the most renowned World Heritage Sites such as Mahasthangarh, the Ruins of the Buddhist Bihara at Paharpur amongst others are not properly promoted which must be done, in accordance with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Furthermore, very recently UNESCO has also labelled the Sundarbans, which is the largest mangrove forest in the world and also a world heritage site, to be under threat due to climate change and various industrial developments. However, under International Conventions it is the responsibility of the state government to promote and protect its natural heritage sites. Inability to do so can result in breaches of several international conventions.
In times of conflicts, cultural heritage is protected by a number of international conventions and laws. The states have essentially elaborated and adopted these legal instruments. Despite the fact that they have been approved by a large number of countries, they are only binding on those which choose to join which is normally done through ratification, accession, approval or acceptance of the convention by the states. In fact, the destruction of cultural heritage sites is considered to be a "War Crime". Each international convention has legal force only within the sphere of its application which is normally defined by weather or not the states have signed and ratified those conventions, the timeframe it covers since Conventions usually do not apply retrospectively and its subject matter, for example the importance of cultural property as defined by the convention. Despite the regional and municipal differences in legislation and the fact that not all laws and conventions are legally enforceable, there has been some agreement. In general, as mentioned before, cultural heritage is protected against any act of hostility under law of armed conflict as long as it is not employed for military reasons at the same time.
There are however four key aspects that must be adhered to by all states during armed conflicts, regardless of whether they have acceded to or accepted the legal framework. The first three apply to both international and non-international armed conflicts, however, the fourth element is exclusively applicable to international armed conflicts. The first part includes the obligation of each party to a conflict to respect cultural property. There must be special care taken during conducting military operations in order to avoid damages to buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, education or charitable purposes and historic monuments unless they are essentially military objects. The property of great interest must not be the object of attack unless imperatively required by the military necessity. There also exists the prohibition to use cultural property of great importance for the purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage, unless imperatively required by the military necessity. Each party to the conflict also has obligations to protect cultural property. It is also further mentioned that all seizure of or destruction of or wilful damage done to religion, charity, education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and sciences are prohibited. Furthermore, any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of and any act of vandalism directed against property of great importance to the cultural heritage is prohibited. There are also obligations for the occupied power to prevent the illicit export of cultural property from occupied territory and to return illicitly-exported property to the component authorities of the occupied territory.
The most important conventions which relate to cultural protection are the Geneva Convention (1949) and Additional Protocols I and II (1977), which forbid pillage and destruction of cultural property by invading or occupying forces. The Hague Convention (1954) and its first and second protocols (1954/1999) are the only international instruments aimed at specifically protecting cultural heritage during an armed conflict and occupation and define the circumstances under which cultural property may be attacked as well as methods for its protection. UNESCO Convention (1970) is the most broadly ratified international convention that exists on the issue of illicit trafficking in cultural property. Furthermore, the World Heritage Convention (1972) sets out the duties of State Parties in identifying potential sites of outstanding importance to mankind and their role in protecting and preserving them as well as protecting their natural heritage. There also exists the Convention on Stolen or Illegally exported cultural objects (1995) and International Criminal Law which allow for prosecution of individual war criminals for destructive acts or operating against cultural heritage. Furthermore, the International Human Rights Law guarantees the right to take part in cultural life and to take part in cultural heritage. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has the jurisdiction to exercise its power against any party who violates these conventions.
It shall also be noted that even though works of archaeology are open for public domain, archaeologists who are responsible for the discovery of various monuments can have its Copyright License for an exclusive period of time under Intellectual Property Law. This makes the data collection, video footage sharing and further expedition of these sites solely exclusive to them. In Bangladesh even though there exists the "Antiques Act of 1968" there has not been any genuine effort made to amend and implement this act. It is very important that International Conventions are implemented in order to protect and preserve World Heritage Sites such as the Sundarbans.