Over the past two decades cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has become an increasingly evident – and fraught – subject of foreign affairs. One reason is a recent proliferation of multilateral conventions by UNESCO, among others, more specifically articulating international frameworks for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage globally. These include the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the 2005 Diversity Convention, and the 2008 ratification by the U.S. of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, among other precedents. New collaborations between cultural professionals and the U.S. military, in the context of this increasing attention to heritage, constitute non-traditional opportunities for cultural diplomacy.
One effect of the recent push for international normative frameworks governing the conduct of persons, communities, and states with respect to heritage has been to identifiably constitute “cultural heritage” as a kind of scarce local or national resource, as a well-defined potential subject of state action, and as a basis of international relations and of conflict. Tracking this trend, some historians have referred to the contemporary onset of “heritage crusades,” which can lead to “heritage wars.” In other words, attitudes about cultural heritage have changed over time, and international actors increasingly seek legal redress, or take violent steps, in relation to an increasingly prevailing conception of heritage as: rivalrous, non-renewable, specific in time and place, and exclusively owned by people, communities, or nations.
Not coincidentally, the potential destruction of cultural heritage has become a major preoccupation, not only for particular communities and nation-states, but also for the U.S. military. Recent history is replete with multiple examples of the destruction of heritage sites or objects in active conflict zones, or leading to conflict. A short list would include the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum, the devastation of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs during the conflict in Mali, and ongoing heritage loss as part of the conflict in Syria, among others. Heritage destruction, looting, and the illegal antiquities trade are one front in these heritage wars. Conflicting claims, the definition of heritage as property, and calls for repatriation, are another front. Read the rest of this entry »