Posted inOpinion

We cannot afford to lose Ukraine’s cultural heritage

Image: Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv, Ukraine

Since February 24th, 2022, the world has witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing atrocities. There have been global discussions about gas and atomic energy concerns, the American and European involvement, and even the export of seed oils and corn from Ukraine. Questions have surrounded both countries and their head of state, questioning the sanity of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the practical next steps for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  

Yet, with the conflict reaching its sixth month, the question of Ukraine’s art and cultural heritage sectors has seldom been addressed. Before the war, Ukraine witnessed a vibrant art scene from Lviv to Kyiv, with demonstrations of a growing modern and contemporary art platform around the country. Additionally, Ukraine’s cultural heritage sites date back as far as 422 BC, with 7 Ukrainian cultural properties listed within UNESCO’s protected sites, including the St. Sophia Cathedral dating back to the 11th century. 

However, as of August 2022, UNESCO has reported war-caused damage to 175 cultural sites, mainly around the country’s eastern regions. The capital city, Kyiv, has also witnessed considerable damage to cultural sites. Overall, museums, libraries, monuments, religious sites, and historic buildings have been destroyed and defaced. In a recent interview, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Kateryna Chueva, said that the real number of damaged and destroyed cultural sites extended far beyond UNESCO’s estimation. 

When an estimated 100,000 lives have been lost, there are rising stagflation risks, and global diplomacy is hanging by a thread, why should we care about cultural heritage? The answer is that culture and identity go hand in hand, the destruction of a country’s culture is the destruction of the identity of its people. As said by Minister Chueva, “Every single person is a bearer of culture, of knowledge and traditions”. The Minister’s statement aptly addresses the need for identity conservation through the protection of a people’s heritage, both tangible and intangible. 

War has always been associated with the destruction of property, cultural heritage, and so,  cultural identity. From the destruction of entire cities to the damaging or destruction of religious, cultural, and folkloric symbols, cultural heritage crimes have been an ongoing consequence of every historical conflict. But what can be done to protect it in times of war? There are a number of international legal tools in place to cover these crimes and the protection of a society’s culture, since the end of World War II. The Nazi plunder which occurred during the Second World War moved the international community to address the issue of art theft and cultural heritage destruction at a pressing rate after 1945. Several legal tools were adopted, most famously the 1954 Hague Convention, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. These instruments have served in the repatriation of thousands of Jewish cultural heritage after World War II, as well as grounds for repatriation discussions in post-colonial Africa. More than ever, these legal tools need to be applied to 21st-century conflicts.

These soft law instruments (non-binding) give guidance on illegal war actions and consequences for damage, destruction, or theft of cultural heritage. These lay out the terms and definitions associated with cultural heritage as well as countries’ responsibilities surrounding heritage. Article 11 of the 1970 Convention proves especially relevant when analysing the Ukraine-Russia War, stating “The export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit”. However, will this apply today to Russia? The disappointing yet realistic answer is most likely not. Holding a country accountable for war crimes takes years and necessitates international cooperation. In 1945, after the liberation of Europe by the Allied Powers, USSR soldiers famously retrieved and stole a number of cultural artifacts around Europe, returning them to Russia with no consequence. As there was then, there will seemingly be no restitution or accountability for Russia’s destruction during or after this War. 

This begs the question: what can the international community do to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage? INTERPOL stated that rapidly circulating information relating to crimes against cultural property and heritage is an important step in ensuring its protection. Additionally, it is essential to raise public awareness both in Ukraine and abroad to develop cultural-centric law enforcement services, customs, and judicial authorities. 

As of today, Ukraine remains in dire need of cultural resources and protection. As such, donations to heritage professional networks can help local volunteers in the country to act quickly. In the long term, Ukrainian cultural institutions will need financial support in the reconstruction, preservation, and protection of these cultural artifacts and landmarks. As such, the international community and intergovernmental organisations will be pivotal in fundraising for the safe-keeping of these irreplaceable items and monuments. During a time when the world is coming together to protect the Ukrainian people, we must raise awareness and understand that the protection of a country’s identity and legacy can lie in its cultural heritage. We cannot afford to lose it.