Falling bombs and looting soldiers: how to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage?
The war in Ukraine is leading not only to human suffering. Ukraine's cultural heritage is also experiencing the consequences of the war: museums are being bombed and 'Russification' in the occupied territories means children no longer learn Ukrainian. Researcher Evelien Campfens was commissioned by the European Parliament to investigate how cultural heritage can be better protected in war zones, with a special focus on Ukraine.
Campfens' research can be divided into three parts. On the one hand, she maps legal obligations, which could include a ban on destroying or looting monuments or cultural treasures under international law, and the duty of third countries to help prevent the trafficking of looted art treasures. On the other hand, it involves an inventory of threatened and destroyed cultural heritage in the country. It also takes stock of which organisations are involved in helping to protect Ukraine's cultural heritage and what kind of measures have been taken. Attention will also be paid to experiences gained in protecting and reconstructing cultural heritage in previous conflict areas, such as the Balkans or Syria.
The research is extensive, as cultural heritage is a broad concept. 'You have to think of material heritage such as monuments, art objects or archaeological finds, but it also includes intangible heritage such as traditions,' explains Campfens. Protection measures therefore vary widely. While physical safety for tangible heritage will be important, for the protection of intangible heritage it is also important, for example, that children who have fled war zones continue to learn their own language.
She does most of her research from her office. 'It soon became clear to me that I couldn't do my research there on location, but it wouldn't work on my own in Leiden either,' Campfens says. So she gathered a team of specialists around her, reporting on the situation from Ukraine itself. 'Colleagues from Poland, England and Belgium are also participating enthusiastically.'
The extra hands are a welcome addition, as the European Union believes action needs to be taken urgently. To do that, however, it first has to become clear where and how help is needed. 'To find that out, I am constantly talking to people from all kinds of organisations involved in protecting cultural heritage. That's how I try to identify the obstacles,' says Campfens. Since the start of the war, many initiatives have emerged that are trying to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage, but there’s no certainty about what works and what doesn’t, and whether there is sufficient coordination between the organisations. 'This is what we ultimately need to make recommendations to the European Parliament about,' she adds.
Although the study is still ongoing, Campfens can already hint at a possible recommendation for the European Parliament. 'One of our recommendations will probably be that emergency cultural heritage measures should be seen more as part of humanitarian aid,' she says. 'If war breaks out somewhere or there is a natural disaster, there are protocols that ensure global organisations like the Red Cross are deployed for humanitarian aid. We are now slowly realising that this does not take enough account of the protection of cultural heritage. Perhaps there should be clearer protocols for that too. In the war in Ukraine, which is essentially a cultural war where heritage is therefore also a target, you can see how incredibly important cultural heritage is to people.'
So even beyond the war in Ukraine, European member states can benefit from Campfens' report. 'It's not just about emergency measures that you can take immediately, but also measures you need to take before a conflict or disaster, and what you need to do when reconstruction starts again,' Campfens explains. ‘Take the inventory of a museum collection, for example. If the museum can no longer be protected during an armed conflict or natural disaster, there needs to be a good record of the collection. Otherwise, you never know what has disappeared. It’s also important for a country like the Netherlands to have these kinds of things in good order too.'