Monday, December 19, 2011

"We had no idea it was a library"

The CNN story on the burning of the library in Egypt contains a telling vignette:

At least one demonstrator was unaware that the structure was a library containing historical documents.
"We had no idea it was a library. We love our country. Why were the military thugs on the rooftop of the building in the first place, throwing debris and rocks at us? They destroyed it, not us, and now they will use it to turn public opinion against us and label us thugs," said Ahmed Ali, a student and activist involved in the clashes.

"Since when are buildings or manuscripts more important than the lives of humans?" he added.

The demonstrator's comments hold several lessons one hopes will be learned by heritage protection advocates:

1. There is no guarantee that protestors, patriotic as they are, will know that the buildings they are fighting over are cultural institutions. Organizations that want to avert the disaster that befell the library need to make sure that their buildings are prominently labelled, and heritage protection advocacy groups should be handing out leaflets marking buildings as offlimits.

2. The 1954 Hague Convention requires the marking of cultural buildings in war zones with Blue Shields, but that provision would probably not apply to the kind of conflict occurring in Cairo or elsewhere between citizens and government forces rather than between militaries. The law of war has not caught up with the realities of war today, which involves irregular conflicts much more often than traditional war did. The International Committee of the Blue Shield, which might have taken proactive measures as suggested in #1 above, is hamstrung by its need to operate on a government to government basis, so it either needs to persuade the UN to broaden its mandate or other international and non-governmental organizations need to step in to make sure combatants are informed about the risks they are taking with cultural heritage when they confront each other near or on the grounds of cultural institutions.

3. The Egyptian military should be held accountable for a war crime if its soldiers attacked the demonstrators from the roof of the building, assuming that the 1954 Hague Convention applies. But if the soldiers were attacked first, the Convention (at least so far as I, a non-lawyer, understand it) would be moot. And if the soldiers were trying to drive the protestors away from the building to keep it from burning, they would be acting heroically not illegally.

4. Buildings or manuscripts are not more important than human beings, which is why the 1954 Hague Convention recognizes that military necessity can allow buildings to be destroyed if there is no way to avoid doing so in the midst of a fight. But this is all the more reason why, since both sides in this conflict recognize that manuscripts are important, steps should have been taken by both sides in advance to ensure that there was no need to choose between protecting lives and protecting culture.

No comments: