Recently, grenade and shrapnel came close to damaging the 11th century temple of Preah Vihear on the Cambodia-Thailand border. It was only in July, this Hindu temple built by the Khmer kings was listed as a world heritage monument by UNESCO. Though both countries had laid claim to the monument, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cambodia in 1962. Ironically, instead of enhancing the conservation efforts the listing has heightened the three decades of tension simmering between the two countries. This conflict has brought into focus the plight of cultural properties during armed conflicts. The guiding principles for the protection of heritage structures during armed conflict were laid down as early as 1899 and 1907. The more comprehensive Hague Convention was adopted in 1954. In spite of all this, the situation has not changed much. The destruction of Armenian monuments in Azerbaijan, wanton damage of cultural properties during the Kosovo war, looting of the Baghdad museum during the Iraq war, and the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas remind us that monuments continue to be vulnerable during armed conflicts.
The amendments to the Hague Convention, which demand that the military objectives be well defined and the important monuments kept away from military activities, rightly place the onus on both the warring parties. It is a matter of some comfort that “destruction and wilful damage” of historic monuments in Croatia was among the war-related criminal charges on which General Pavle Strugar was sentenced to eight years in prison. But recurring destruction of cultural properties raises issues about the implementation of these conventions. While the statutes can serve as deterrents, a better approach would be to protect the monuments proactively. During the Second World War, civilian affairs units comprising heritage specialists functioned within the military and advised on the protection of cultural properties. This helped sensitise the military and paid dividends in places such as Italy. The absence of such care and planning in the recent wars was strikingly evident in Iraq. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Blue Shield, “the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross,” may do their best for protecting cultural properties during emergency situations. But much of the responsibility lies with the warring countries themselves. In a less than ideal world, all nations must show a commitment to protecting the monuments that are the common heritage of mankind.