Protection of Cultural Heritage: Between Individual and Group Rights

The protection of cultural heritage was given worldwide urgency in light of recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places that featured the deliberate, symbolic destruction of cultural artefacts and sites. These attacks, such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 by Taliban forces or the attack of mausoleums in Timbuktu by Al-Qaeda in 2012, brought attention to the limited protection offered by international law to cultural heritage.

As a result, international lawyers have sought to develop tools to better protect cultural heritage. In September 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) rendered its first verdict dealing solely with cultural destruction – Prosecutor v. Al Mahdi, where the accused was indicted for the war crime of destruction of cultural property. The decision was lauded for its precedential value for recognizing the link between an attack on a group’s cultural heritage and its destruction. Alongside the criminal route of including "crimes against culture" under the framework of war crimes, human rights activists have also turned to the civil route of transnational restitution litigation. In several Holocaust-related cases in the United States, federal courts have extended the definition of genocide so as to include expropriation, and this in order to lift state immunity from civil litigation (Simon v. Republic of Hungary, 2016; Csepel v. Republic of Hungary, 2017). Victims have made similar claims in relation to German colonialism in South West Africa (Namibia), asking not only for recognition of "property taking" as genocide, but also for recognition of the dispossessed group as an independent party, alongside state representatives, in negotiations for reparations (Vekuii Rukoro et al. v. Germany, 2017). Similarly, a U.S. court recently accepted the claim by heirs of Jewish Holocaust victims that the forced sale of an art collection be regarded as genocide for the purposes of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) (Alan Philipp et. al. v. Germany, 2018).

These developments raise many questions and dilemmas. Which heritage is worthy of protection and how is it recognized? What is the balance between protection of cultural heritage and other values? Is the meaning and importance a certain community ascribes to cultural heritage an essential factor in its protection? Are individual rights infringed by a focus on group cultural rights? Can we find historical examples of attempts to define damage to cultural heritage or to successfully protect cultural heritage and if so – what can we learn from them?

The Minerva center aims to support research and debate on these important and timely questions, as well as on related questions of human rights and multiculturalism, through interdisciplinary research and a number of events in the next years.

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