When Does Targeting Monuments Become a Human Rights Abuse?
Turkey’s YouTube blackout may not be as chilling as the leaked tape that prompted the ban of the video-sharing website. In the March 2014 recording, top officials in Turkey seemingly discuss staging an attack against a sacred Turkish tomb in Syria for the purpose of justifying military engagement by Ankara.
Cultural monuments have been targeted by power-holders for millennia. Assyria’s Sargon II proudly documented his plunder of the Musasir temple in Uraratu 2,700 years ago. The Nazis, as illustrated in the recent Hollywood movie The Monuments Men¸ stole precious pieces of art for either a future ‘Führermuseum’ or a complete destruction, depending on the outcome of WWII.
But cultural destruction is not a problem of the past. On the contrary, the targeting of monuments is a trending human rights violation. Here are some examples:
- Timbuktu, Mali. 2012. Ansar Dine extremists, after a revolt, destroyed sacred Sufi Muslim shrines, calling the vandalism “a divine order.”
- Djulfa, Azerbaijan. 2005. Azerbaijan’s military units eradicated the world’s largest collection of medieval Armenian khachkars (cross-stones), later claiming that the site never existed.
- Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan, 2001. The Taliban blew up giant Buddha statues, following a massacre of the local Hazara minority.
Timbuktu, Djulfa and Bamiyan were attacked by the very power-holders that were supposed to protect them, arguably making these cases “crimes against humanity.” The victims weren’t just the stones, but also the communities who considered them sacred. In fact, all three cases were accompanied by other human rights violations in the region.
[pullquote text=”Cultural destruction is not a problem of the past. On the contrary, the targeting of monuments is a trending human rights violation.”]Amnesty International, among others, has broadened its mission to fight for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. But should cultural monuments become an active issue of the human rights agenda?
Those who say “yes” might cite the ineffectiveness of UNESCO – the international body charged with protecting our global heritage – to prevent and punish destruction, at least in the case of Djulfa.
Some rights groups already see monuments as a human rights issue. In 2010, the American Association of the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program used satellite data to confirm the destruction of the remote Djulfa cemetery, even though the assault had taken place in an uninhabited area and targeted solely cultural monuments.
An upcoming documentary ‘The Destruction of Memory‘ by Vast Productions will hopefully contribute to the conversation of including cultural monuments in the human rights agenda. “The desire to eradicate examples of this incredible heritage,” says director Tim Slade, “speaks to both the power of cultural heritage and the need for greater protection.”
What do you think? Are cultural monuments a human rights issue?