UNESCO: deliberate destruction of Ukraine's cultural heritage could be considered a war crime

Since the Russian offensive began on 24 February 2022, the damage or destruction of nearly 100 culturally important sites in Ukraine have been verified by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Several theatres, museums, churches and other historical buildings in attacked cities have had their windows shattered, their walls laced with bullet holes, or have even entirely crumbled to pieces from shelling.

According to Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, the damage to historic sites is having terrible consequences on the country’s cultural identity. The Cameroonian architect is the first African to head the Centre and the former director for culture and emergencies at the UN agency. Speaking to Geneva Solutions, Eloundou Assomo,  warned that targeting buildings bearing the UNESCO-backed Blue Shield can be considered a war crime.

GS News: Seven World Heritage sites are in Ukraine, but you are also gravely concerned about the damage caused to any cultural sites. What has the Word Heritage Centre done to prevent the targeting?

Lazare Eloundou Assomo: Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, it is a race against time, fortunately none of the seven World heritage sites in Ukraine have been targeted. We are in regular contact with Ukrainian cultural heritage professionals and national authorities, specifically with the Ukrainian deputy minister of culture, Kateryna Chuyeva, trying to understand the situation on the ground, to assist the museums officials, heritage custodians and civilian volunteers to safeguard cultural treasures from the shelling to the best of their capacities. UNESCO also recommended to mark, as quickly as possible, key historic monuments, and sites across the country with the distinctive emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention, an internationally recognised sign for the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.

GS News: In a mid-March letter, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director general, reminded Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, of Russia's obligations under an international convention to protect cultural heritage during conflict. Does it mean that any deliberate targeting of buildings bearing the UNESCO-backed blue shield will be considered a war crime?

LEA: In 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2347, which for the first time made the protection of cultural heritage a security imperative and condemned the deliberate destruction of cultural property as a war crime.

GS News: As you already experienced a similar situation back in 2012 in Mali, could you tell us what it means?

LEA: Between June and July 2012, during the occupation of Northern Mali by armed groups, 14 mausoleums of saints, as well as the sacred gate of the Sidi Yahia Mosque, were destroyed. As Mali had ratified the 1954 Hague Convention and its second protocol [Editor’s note: the amendment narrows the scope of military necessity and enhances protection of cultural sites], the government could submit a request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a war crimes investigation. On 27 September 2016, it convicted Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi of being guilty of war crimes for ordering  this mass destruction. He was handed a nine-year prison term and ordered to pay 2.7 million euros in reparations [Editor’s note: in expenses for individual and collective reparations for the community of the city].

GS News: On 10 March, you held a virtual meeting with Ukrainian museum directors to safeguard collections. Can you tell us about it?

LEA: The purpose of this exchange was to understand the situation of the museums and the risks of exposure to destruction and illicit trafficking of their collections. With the experience we have with other armed conflicts in the world, it was important to understand their urgent needs, and to take the necessary steps to prevent this underground high risk of illicit trafficking by alerting all neighbouring countries, as well as the international community to remain vigilant. This meeting was also useful to realise how much these people are risking their life daily to safeguard their museums and collections.

GS News: UNESCO is monitoring heritage sites with the help of the UN Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR). Is it helpful?

LEA: We have an agreement with UNITAR since 2015. This monitoring, conducted by the UN institute, which hosts the United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT), is extremely helpful. Satellite imagery of an area of interest can help us identify and verify possible damages and its gravity, based on various information we are receiving from governmental, civil society and media sources, but it needs to be validated in the field. The financial contribution of Canada and Japan allow us to manage the surveillance.

GS News: Is there a place for which you are particularly worried?

LEA: World heritage sites such as Kyiv and Lviv are of great concern to us. Kyiv hosts over 30 museums. We particularly fear for two very important ensembles: the St. Sophia Cathedral and the Lavra monastic complex, which are testimony to the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church. European old masters, Asian art and Russian paintings are also gathered in palaces of the city.

GS News: Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and former capital of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (1917-1934), was largely hit. Can you tell us more about it?

LEA: Kharkiv is a UNESCO creative city for music, with many cultural facilities with its libraries, museums, arts galleries and theatres. It has one of the largest squares in Europe, the central Freedom Square, which is home to an important constructivist architectural ensemble. The fact that we have been able to count more than 20 historic monuments, sites, museums and churches, including the Russian Orthodox church Assumption Cathedral, as seriously damaged makes us fear discovering the worst in the coming days.

GS News: What about Mariupol city?

LEA: As you know, Mariupol is classified in the Donetsk region where we have also counted 20 sites and monuments seriously damaged. Until now, we could verify that seven places (infrastructure, churches, museums, monuments) were affected. Since information is difficult to gather for the moment, we could verify that two theatres, including the Mariupol Drama Theatre, three churches, including St. Archangel Michael Church, the Museum of Local Lore and several memorial monuments were affected.

GS News: What is UNESCO’s position towards the destruction of all the Ukrainian monuments?

LEA: We know that cultural properties are targeted because they represent the soul of a society. Unfortunately, Ukraine is not the only place in the world where attacks on cultural heritage take place. It can also be observed in the Sahel, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. We must therefore sustain an international mobilisation under UNESCO’s coordination, which can be modelled on what has been done in Timbuktu, Mali, with the safeguarding of mausoleums and ancient manuscripts, as well as in Mosul, Iraq, with the safeguarding of communities’ mosques and churches.