Wednesday, July 09, 2008

World Archaeological Congress Plenary session issues resolution

This just out from the World Archaeological Congress plenary session.  I did not attend, so I did not hear the arguments that were made there, and I need to digest the statement, but it seems at first glance ethically misguided in several ways. More to come, but here's the statement. It is preceded by a press release which Jon Price, member of the WAC executive committee, notes (in his comment below) is not WAC's officially authorized press release. (WAC's official release does not specify that WAC has a policy to refuse to cooperate with the military, and WAC does support the Hague Convention.)

Archaeologists urged not to become part of the war planning against Iran

More than a thousand archaeologists from all over the world gathered in Dublin
at the end of June to attend the 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC). WAC
is the only archaeological organisation with global elected representation, and
one which places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics.

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a
resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges
archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues
during the planning of such attack. In the recent past, archaeologists in the
USA were approached by the military and were asked to provide expertise and
advice on Iranian archaeological sites. The Congress felt that to provide such
information at this stage is to offer “cultural credibility and respectability
to the military action”. In 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, some
archaeologists both in the USA and the UK were asked to provide (or
volunteered) information on sites “to be spared”. Their actions attracted
considerably criticism from many of their colleagues.

The text of the resolution is as follows:

“The 6th World Archaeological Congress expresses its strong opposition to any
unilateral and unprovoked, covert or overt military action (including air
strikes) against Iran by the US government, or by any other government. Such
action will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people and will
seriously endanger the cultural heritage of Iran and of the Middle East in
general. Any differences with Iran (as with any other country) should be
resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.

The Congress also urges its members, all archaeologists and heritage
professionals to resist any attempts by the military and governments to be
co-opted in any planned military operation, for example by providing advice and
expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters. Such
advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military
action. Archaeologists should continue emphasising instead the detrimental
consequences of such actions for the people and the heritage of the area, for
the past and the present alike. A universal refusal by archaeologists and
others would send the message that such a plan is hugely unpopular amongst
cultural professionals as well as the wider public”.

CONTACT: Dr Yannis Hamilakis, University of Southampton, co-ordinator, WAC
“Archaeologist and War Task Force” (

Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield, (


Anonymous said...


it is important to indicate that this text was forwarded to the assembly of WAC from the plenary session at the end of conference, but was critically reworded by WAC council. This is not a WAC press release. The press release as authorised by the president, is more circumspect and does NOT specify that WAC has a policy to refuse to cooperate with the military. WAC supports the Hague Convention.
Jon Price, member of WAC exec

samarkeolog said...

Is the implication thus that WAC-6 did *not* support the Hague Convention?

It appears to me that, rather, both "pro-engagement" and "anti-collaboration" archaeologists support the Hague Convention and the UN Charter, but they find themselves in the invidious position of needing to choose the lesser of two evils.

The pro-engagement archaeologists regard themselves as professionals first, for whom, being archaeologists, violation of the Hague Convention would be a greater evil.

The anti-collaboration archaeologists regard themselves as individuals first, for whom, being citizens, violation of the UN Charter (by collaboration in an aggressive war) would be a greater evil.

Larry Rothfield said...

First, just to be clear, we are not talking about WAC's official position but of the vote that was taken at a plenary session (see Jon Price's clarification and my later blog on this).

It is not possible to support the Hague Convention without also supporting collaboration with the military, since only archaeologists can provide the site coordinates for archaeological sites. So a choice needs to be made. But the real question is whether collaborating to protect archaeological sites and museums is aiding the military in the conduct of war. The military would be less hampered if it had fewer -- or no -- sites on its no-strike list because archaeologists refused to supply them. The targeters who spent many hours inputting the coordinates of archaeological sites could spend their time instead targeting electrical grids, roads, etc., as well as pure military targets. Non-collaboration in this sense makes it easier for the military to fight the war that you (and I) deem immoral. To call for non-collaboration on this particular issue is misguided. As a citizen, you should be concerned with both the immorality of an illegal war, and with the immorality of a war conducted without the restrictions of the laws of war, including the 1954 Hague Convention.

samarkeolog said...

Yes, I understood that WAC6's vote was not WAC's position, but in disavowing the press release of the authors of the resolution, Jon Price stated that (the organisation) WAC doesn't have a policy of non-cooperation with the military and that 'WAC supports the Hague Convention', which rather suggests that the resolution (and thus (the conference, delegates, whoever) WAC6, which passed it), does not.

The choice of the lesser of two evils, nevertheless, does not imply that the lesser evil is a good; anti-collaboration archaeologists are not rejecting the Hague Convention, but upholding the UN Charter. If the UN Charter were not being violated by the militaries, the anti-collaboration archaeologists would cooperate with them; however, in the case of Iraq, and, God forbid, Iran, it is/would be an aggressive war, which violates the UN Charter.

Having seen some brusque exchanges between archaeologists (I hasten to add, none of the ones named here), and heard some remarkably unacademic language used by one side of the argument, I thought identifying where the archaeological community split.

It will not bring them any closer together, but it might hope to restore a little mutual respect. After all, they are both implementing international law. It is just that both international laws may not be implemented simultaneously.

As George Monbiot observed on the 17th of October 2006, not only have activists disrupting the arms trade and military activity been cleared of criminal charges in several countries, but:

the German federal administrative court threw out the charge of insubordination against a major in the German army. He had refused to obey an order which, he believed, would implicate him in the invasion of Iraq. The judges determined that the UN charter permits a state to go to war in only two circumstances: in self-defence, and when it has been authorised to do so by the UN security council. The states attacking Iraq, they ruled, had no such licence. Resolution 1441, which was used by the British and US governments to justify the invasion, contained no authorisation. The war could be considered an act of aggression.

Thus, at least in Germany, if not in Britain (where wars of aggression are not illegal under domestic law, and thus not citeable as lawful excuses for criminal acts), non-cooperation with the military is legally defensible.

If archaeologists refused to cooperate with aggressors to uphold the Hague Convention, they would infringe upon, or cause the infringement of, the Hague Convention, but they would uphold, or refrain from violating, the UN Charter.

Thus, both sides are principled positions; and indeed, both sides are legal positions, insofar as no-one has been prosecuted for cooperating, but contrarily, people have been exonerated for resisting. Yet, something, somewhere in the system, must change.

Still, even the establishment of a "Cultural Red Cross/Crescent" - or the effective implementation of one, if the International Committee of the Blue Shield is already supposed to be just that - would not rescue us from this problem, because the planning of the wars would still require cultural heritage to be protected.

We'll just have to wait for people to stop fighting aggressive wars...

Larry Rothfield said...

Sorry, but anti-collaboration archaeologists are indeed rejecting the Hague Convention. The whole point of the resolution was to stigmatize any archaeologists who did try to make sure the military fulfilled its obligations under that Convention. That is a big mistake, for both practical and logical reasons. The logic, again, is that fulfilling this obligation is a constraint on military action -- it makes it more difficult, not easier, to wage war. If archaeologists oppose a war on the grounds that it is illegal under the Charter, they should see the Hague Convention as one among many things they can do to limit that warmaking. They should also protest vociferously of course.

samarkeolog said...

I understand the logical and practical arguments you're making; I do not necessarily deny them, in a narrow sense, at least, but I do fear that they reduce us to acquiescence to any and all crimes.

Nevertheless, if anti-collaboration archaeologists are rejecting the Hague Convention, then pro-engagement archaeologists are rejecting the UN Charter. Do you think pro-engagement archaeologists would agree to that characterisation? To mirror your argument, it is not possible to support the UN Charter without also rejecting collaboration with an aggressive military.