Friday, September 26, 2008

Hague Ratification: Fighting the Last War?

The Senate has at long last ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This ends decades of unflagging lobbying by cultural heritage protection advocates, led by the indefatigable Patty Gerstenblith and others. They are to be congratulated on achieving this legislative victory.

But lest anyone think that the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is now assured, it is important to recognize what ratification of Hague does and does not accomplish. Ratification does send a strong signal to countries around the world that the United States values their cultural heritage, and it also signals the importance of protecting cultural heritage from the ravages of war. 

Practically speaking, however, ratification will make little immediate difference in the measures that the United States takes to protect the cultural and historical record of humankind, because we already were observing the provisions of the Convention as a matter of customary international law. During both Gulf Wars, for instance, the United States military took considerable care to gather information on the locations of cultural sites in Iraq and avoided targeting them. We all know that despite this, neither Iraq's National Museum nor its archaeological sites were secured, with disastrous and tragic losses to the record of our human origins.

The problem is that the 1954 Hague Convention was designed to deal with a threat quite different from the one that Donny George faced in 2003 or that guards on archaeological sites have faced since then. In 1954, the danger was understood as posed by military actions: bombing and shelling, tank movements, and pillaging, theft, or vandalism by troops. These dangers still exist, and Hague is necessary to force militaries to avoid doing harm themselves to cultural sites. 

A new and quite distinct danger has emerged in the half-century since the 1954 Convention, however. It comes not from military action, but from military inaction in the face of looting by civilians, fueled by the global market for antiquities that has boomed over the last few decades. While Hague leads the military to fucus on avoiding harm, it imposes no requirement to actively protect cultural sites against the harm that comes from the breakdown in law and order and the concomitant surge in market-driven looting. The obligations it imposes on occupying powers, in fact, seem designed to limit the responsibility of occupiers for securing cultural property, with such responsibility applying only to "cultural property situated in occupied territory and damaged by military operations," only when national authorities are unable to protect it, and even then only so far as possible. Since looting by civilians is not damage inflicted by military operations, Iraq's archaeological sites are fair game and no necessary concern of the US military, which may in fact point to Hague as putting it off the hook for whatever goes wrong.

This is not to say that ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention is valueless -- far from it. For one thing, by formalizing what had been a customary observance, it will certainly have a ripple effect within military planning and war-fighting doctrine, and will give a helpful boost to the efforts by the Blue Shield and archaeological organizations to embed cultural awareness training within curricula. We should all celebrate this victory, and then turn our attention to ways of getting national authorities both civilian and military to focus on the real and still unaddressed challenge of securing cultural property from looting by civilians in the aftermath of armed conflict.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another "news story" out as part of the public relations campaign to make it appear that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are mopping up, now that the looting is over (or never happened).
This past May, Iraqi archaeologists were able to visit the areas for the first time since the start of the war. While sites like the carved walls of Nineveh were in drastic need of protection from the sun and wind, the fact that many areas were largely unexcavated probably protected them from looters, according to Diane Siebrandt, cultural heritage officer for the U.S. State Department in Baghdad.

It is nice to hear from the State Department that many areas around Mosul were spared the looting that has devastated thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq. But is it really true as a general statement? We have no time-series photos of all the areas around Mosul to verify this. And the sites that have been visited are among a small number that came under US military protection. They have been spared not, as the State Department officer claims, because Mosul's sites are largely unexcavated -- unexcavated sites elsewhere in Iraq have been decimated -- but because we have guarded them. That is something the State Department and the military have been unwilling to acknowledge, since it would obviously point to the  need to put military and security resources into guarding sites at a point when the overall administration policy has been to reduce our footprint. We owe it to the Iraqis, and to ourselves, to do more to secure the sites from the looting that is daily destroying more and more of the record of our origins. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Slight Correction on What We Know about Looting from Available Satellite Evidence

In my Aug. 30 post, I quoted my colleague McGuire Gibson to the effect that satellite imagery from 2006, 2007, and 2008 purchased by the Oriental Institute disproves the claim that looting declined severely in 2004. This turns out to be a misstatement: the Oriental Institute did have images of the same sites from 2003 and 2008 but not from 2006 or 2007. Images from the 2005-2007 period are being purchased, however, so we should have some more information soon, based on satellite analysis, about whether for those particular sites looting continued during the post-2004 period.

If the question is whether looting has ceased in Iraq, however, we do not need time-series satellite photos to prove that it has not. In addition to the other evidence mentioned in other posts to this blog, there is the image above of Tell Shmid, taken this year and posted on Google Earth. The entire site is pitted, and there are fresh holes on the south west side of the tell.
Again, as I noted previously, no one site's condition, or even that of several sites, can serve as a proxy for determining the degree or rate of looting for the entirety of the country. To determine that we would need to be able to compare, year by year, the satellite or aerial imagery for at least a representative sample of sites.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Looting on sites now -- video forthcoming

At Monday's panel discussion at the US Institute for Peace, Donny George Youkhanna responded to the recent articles (most notoriously, Martin Bailey's interview with Dr Abbas al-Husseini) pushing the claim that looting of sites in Iraq is over. Prof. George announced that informants in Iraq who were equipped with mini-cams have filmed looters at work during the past month. It is not clear when this footage will be available, but Micah Garen is said to be finishing his long-awaited documentary and it may appear in that piece.

Friday, September 05, 2008

More word on whether looting of Iraq's sites is over

If it were not already clear that the rosy scenario painted by Dr Abbas is difficult to accept at face value, Mounir Bouchenaki, the Director-General of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, writes to say that, although "we have unfortunately no direct information, since no mission can go to the field," the word he is getting is not terribly encouraging:

...according to various colleagues having been to Baghdad (only in the green zone) and one UNESCO colleague having been to Samarra, the situation is not completely under control. To give you one example from yesterday's meeting I had with one official from the Italian Ministry of Culture who was in Nassiriyah on August 10th. He said that the situation is still very tense and there are problems of security. He had to fly with the support of the American army from Baghdad to Nassiriyah. According to him the lack of control by the Department of Antiquities of the archaeological sites is certainly leading to ongoing illegal excavations.

Does this prove that looting is ongoing at sites throughout Iraq? No. Does it prove that the Department of Antiquities is not fully in control. Yes. Does it lead one to suspect that looting is going on at the many places where the Department of Antiquities is not in control? Yes. Does it underline, yet again, the importance of American military support for the efforts of the SBAH? Yes.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"Cultural Heritage Sites Safe" (at least, those that have been guarded)

The State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewah Province has issued a report of an assessment of important archaeological sites in northern Iraq that was conducted jointly with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in May 2008. The headline trumpets the finding: "Cultural Sites Safe." To be more specific, the team visited Hatra, Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), the Mosul Cultural Museum, the al Hadba Leaning Minaret in the old city of Mosul, and the St. Elijah Chaldean Monastery ruins. They report that, "even though the sites showed signs of deterioration due to the lack of onsite archaeologists and conservators, none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism."

The first thing to say about this report is that it is heartening to see that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. That is an extremely positive development in itself, long overdue, and the State Department is to be applauded for it. That "this visit marked the first time since 2003 that any SBAH representatives have visited these important sites" says much about how little attention was paid by the US to archaeology in Iraq over the past five years, as well as about the unsettledness of the area in which the sites were located.

But before looting deniers leap upon this latest bit of evidence to proclaim that looting never happened, it is important to recall that Hatra, Nineveh, and Nimrud are all guarded (and Khorsabad is located across the street from a modern town), and have been guarded since they were looted soon after the invasion of 2003. Thanks to Francis Deblauwe's invaluable Iraq War & Archaeology Archive, it is easy to find reports about this:

--I. Watson, "Mosul Museum," in Morning Edition (NPR), with online audio, May 6, 2003: robbers broke into it just hours after the Iraqi army left the city; lots of pieces had been shipped to Baghdad's Museum, mostly big pieces left; subsequent waves of
looters; US commanders say they didn't have enough men to guard the museum;
Manhal Jabar, Director of Archaeology [of Mosul province] worried about the
archaeological sites: at Nineveh, looters have already dug new trenches, and
reliefs have been stolen from Nimrud
--P. Salopek, "Looters
Go to Source to Steal Iraq Artifacts
," in Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2003: "In
Nineveh, ... looters last week tunneled into a tel[l], or man-made hillock, in search of gold ornaments or jewels." "And last weekend at the stone palaces of Nimrud, ... gun-toting tribesmen from surrounding villages took sledgehammers and crowbars to alabaster sculptures that had been exhibited in museums around the globe. Chunks of two large wall slabs bearing the likeness of bearded angels were carted off. A third slab, weighing hundreds of pounds, was badly cracked when the robbers tried unsuccessfully to pull it from a wall." "The most vulnerable corner of the country includes the age-worn plains of northeastern Iraq, Jabr [director of Mosul Museum] said, because a stabilizing U.S. military presence is thinnest there. In that vanished heartland of the sprawling Assyrian empire, Iraqi researchers have logged more than 1,500 archeological sites. Only two still remain guarded by ragged and long-unpaid antiquities police." "Roving bands of looters from the neighboring Al-Jaburi tribe have laid siege to [Nimrud] at night, boring through walls and shooting locks off warehouse doors. The site's half-dozen guards--poorly equipped and technically unemployed since the fall of Hussein's government--fought them off. ... They stubbornly patrolled the site's cut fence. But finally, on Saturday, they were overwhelmed. 'More than 10 men came at night armed with AK-47s,' said Ismael, 28, a skinny, exhausted-looking man who has been providing security at Nimrud for four years. When we ran out of ammunition, they threatened our families. That was the end.' Demoralized, the small police force has threatened to quit." "The 101st Airborne Division, the main U.S. unit posted to nearby Mosul, dispatched a patrol to the vulnerable ruin Sunday. 'We'll stay here a while and maybe send up some flares
at night to scare off the bad guys,' said Capt. Tom Ehrhart, 29, the platoon commander. 'But the long-term job of protecting this site lies with the Iraqis.'" "At Nimrud, ... [t]he Americans took snapshots of each other standing in front of an exquisite carving of Assyrian angels that had been smashed by thieves."

That these sites came under US military protection relatively early on probably explains why the assessment team did not find signs of massive looting. It is puzzling, however, that they should report no looting whatsoever, since it is obvious that looting did occur there; perhaps the sites have been cleaned up over the years since to cover over the signs of what took place in 2003. But we also have this report from Kim Sengupta, from the Aug. 1, 2008 edition of The Independent (London):

In the autumn of 2002, I was being shown around the archaeological digs in the
city of Nineveh by the director of antiquities for northern Iraq. I was, he said, the first visitor to come to the site in months, and the first foreigner for years. A few weeks later, I climbed the extraordinary spiral minaret in the style of an ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat at Samarra. I wondered at the time whether these sites would one day be thronged with visitors again, or whether they would be reduced to ruins in the war looming just over the horizon. After the invasion of March 2003, some of us tried to return, security permitting, to some of the wonderful places we were able to visit before "liberation" - with varying degrees of success. Three years
on, the digs at Nineveh were in a sorry state, with signs of plundering. The museum at Mosul was empty and locked up, the director had fled abroad, and one of his assistants, Ahmed Hussein, had been shot dead, allegedly by the Scorpion Brigade, one of the Iraqi government's special forces.

So, at least in 2006, a reporter notes signs of plundering.

In any case, the lesson is clear: if sites are protected, they will not be looted. It is too bad that thousands of other sites that should and could have been protected as well were not famous enough to warrant sustained attention from the military, which never developed a policy for securing sites or for assisting the State Board of Antiquities in its efforts. The State Department's PRTs represent a civilian version of assistance -- but what is most needful is security rather than conservators, and providing security to assist the Iraqi government is the job of the military. It is not too late to do so now for the State Board of Antiquities, and one hopes that reports like this will serve as a spur to greater site policing assistance, not as an excuse for turning attention away from the problem of looting.

The week of May 17th provided an exciting opportunity for the Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to support Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) with an assessment of conditions at some of the most important cultural heritage sites in Ninewa Province. The PRT hosted Mr. Qais Hussein Rashid, Director General of Excavations from SBAH and Ms. Diane Siebrandt, the Cultural Heritage Officer for the Department of State, US Embassy Baghdad.
This visit marked the first time since 2003 that any SBAH representatives have visited these important sites. The overall report was extremely positive and provided a good baseline for future conservation and restoration.
The total number of cultural heritage sites in Northern Iraq is too numerous to visit during a short fact-finding mission, so the team concentrated on the most significant sites, including Hatra, inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and the ancient city of Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), the Mosul Cultural Museum, the al Hadba Leaning Minaret in the old city of Mosul, and the St. Elijah Chaldean Monastery ruins.
Figure 2 - Hatra relief
(photo: Wolf)
Figure 1 - HATRA, UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo: Siebrandt)
The main goals of the visit were to assess site conditions, determine restoration needs, and coordinate long-range planning efforts between GOI offices, the U.S. government, the Ninewa Provincial governing bodies, site managers, and the international conservation community. Even though the sites showed signs of deterioration due to the lack of onsite archaeologists and conservators, none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism.
The Mosul Cultural Museum, repository of many of the treasures of the region, requires extensive renovation. Experts will be brought to the province to provide technical advice on state-of-the art security, storage, and exhibition planning for the museum. The overarching goal is to allow the Mosul Cultural Museum to retrieve their collection from Baghdad where it was moved for safe-keeping prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The collection, which includes priceless treasures from excavations at Nimrud and other sites in the Province, will not be returned until security measures at the museum are improved.
The week-long fact-finding mission resulted in a plan of action for each site. PRT staff members are working with local officials and SBAH to develop long-term management strategies to be implemented jointly with the assistance of outside partners. In addition to UNESCO, the PRT hopes to involve universities, museums, and NGOs from around the world to assist in the conservation activities. Mosul University’s Archeological Department will become active partners in the restoration activities that will result in development of active partnerships with other interested universities and non-governmental organizations.
Immediate actions include for the sites include:

site clean-up and implementation of site protection measures (fencing and signage);

removal of illegal agriculture and building construction from the sites;

implementation of site surveys with assistance from military engineers;

renovation of the Mosul Cultural Museum;

training of local specialists and archaeologists in conservation and restoration practices including documentation, stone masonry, and earthen architecture conservation, and

generation of jobs and economic opportunities as part of a larger long range tourism economic development planning effort.

Figure 4 - Ninevah
(photo: Siebrandt)
Figure 3 - Mosul Cultural Museum
(photo: Siebrandt)
As a result of this important visit, the assessment team believes the cultural heritage resources of Ninewa will become a major economic driver for the region and contribute to the long-term economic success of Iraq, as well as serve as a significant source of pride for the Iraqi people.
Figure 5 - Nineveh Nergal Gate (photo: Siebrandt) Nineveh