The illegitimate war on Iraq has ravaged the country and severely eroded its capacity to manage not only its future but also the past. Despite timely cautions by archaeologists, the occupying troops irreparably damaged Iraq's heritage, some of which is more than 2,500 years old. Within a few days of the forces entering Baghdad, the looters ransacked the National Museum and stole about 15,000 priceless artefacts. (This was reminiscent of the grievous loss of heritage in Kuwait following Saddam Hussein's brutal invasion and occupation of 1990-91.) Post-invasion, the United States set up a military base atop the archaeological site of Babylon; the Polish troops dug trenches through an ancient temple; and American personnel damaged historic ruins to make way for a helipad. In the face of mounting criticism, the U.S. government tried to mend the situation by initiating the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project but its $13 million grant to the project is small change considering the loss inflicted. As the troops prepare to withdraw, the surviving parts of heritage stand exposed to further pillage. With a poorly funded and inadequately staffed antiquities police force (created in 2008) unable to offer adequate protection, illegal excavations and systematic looting of antiquities have resumed.

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (adopted by UNESCO in 1954) is meant legally to bind the state parties to protect the cultural properties during war and occupation. But it has hardly helped in Iraq. The United Kingdom, one of the two main aggressors, is yet to ratify the convention and the U.S. accepted it only in 2009, long after the invasion. Acceptance of it would have compelled these countries to integrate heritage protection in their invasion plans. This omission, as pointed out to the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry by 13 major heritage organisations, facilitated the extensive looting of priceless cultural heritage and contributed to the alienation of much of the Iraqi population. The reality is that the big powers responsible for damaging the Iraqi heritage will not be penalised — they can be held accountable morally and politically. From the standpoint of heritage protection, the lesson is this: when good sense fails, international and internal pressure is the only way to try and make countries behave decently. Parallel to this, the Hague Convention should be reviewed and the post-withdrawal obligations of occupying state parties expanded. It will be crucial to address the demand side by taking tough action against buyers of stolen antiquities, including museums.

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