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Senate acts to safeguard past during conflicts


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Eisenhower, Bradley (left), and Patton (center) examine Nazi loot. (Courtesy the National Archives)

This past fall, the U.S. Senate finally ratified the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Our national commitment to protecting cultural heritage in wartime has deep roots, beginning with the Civil War. An 1863 military code, written by the scholar Francis Lieber at President Lincoln's behest, reads: "Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments, such as astronomical telescopes, as well as hospitals, must be secured against all avoidable injury, even when they are contained in fortified places whilst besieged or bombarded."

Eighty years later, as the Allies advanced toward Rome, General Eisenhower issued orders echoing the Lieber Code: "To-day we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows." Similar instructions were repeated just before the D-Day landings in France. Advising Eisenhower was Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of the Sumerian city of Ur, who was then serving as a lieutenant colonel in the British War Office.

The devastated monuments and plundered artworks of World War II made it clear that an international framework for protecting cultural property during war was needed. The result was the 1954 Hague Convention, premised on the statement that "damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind."

The United States signed the convention, which sets out the specific obligations of participating countries during hostilities and occupation. But 1954 was the beginning of the Cold War, and the U.S. military objected to ratification (reportedly because it felt it would preclude bombing the Kremlin, a historic building). With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, however, the Pentagon withdrew its objections. President Clinton transmitted the Convention to the Senate in 1999, and in early 2007 it was placed on the State Department's treaty priority list. In July 2008, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously to recommend ratification to the full Senate, which did so in late September.

This is very welcome news. The ratification will strengthen the AIA's efforts to integrate the Hague Convention's provisions into U.S. military training at all levels, and will send a clear signal to other nations that the U.S. has affirmed its commitment to protecting cultural property during armed conflict.

C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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