In the age of social media and internet communications, the issues surrounding the destruction of cultural property during armed conflict are clear for anyone to witness. UNESCO has reported that 152 cultural sites have been damaged since the Russian invasion of Ukraine even though both countries are signatories to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocol 1 (1954) and Protocol 2 (1999) (the Convention). Such statistics prompt the question of how well the law in any country is equipped to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. They are also a reminder of the UK’s relatively recent ratification of the Convention and that implementation is still at an early stage.

The Convention was the first international treaty to focus on protecting cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict and:

  • explicitly prohibits the plundering, pillage and misappropriation of cultural property;
  • requires all state parties to refrain from any act of hostility directed against such property;
  • prevents the export of cultural property from an occupied territory during hostilities and requires cultural property that has been unlawfully exported to be returned to its original territory; and
  • formally requires signatories to adhere to specific standards in their military conduct to help safeguard cultural property.

As of 2021, the Convention had been signed by 133 states. However, it often remains unratified. Even when ratified, only a few states have made much progress in putting it into domestic law and practice with their military and cultural policies and organisations.

Surprisingly, the UK took 63 years to ratify the Convention through the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017 (the Act). This is not the first time jurisdictions have slowly embraced UN treaties. Nevertheless, ratifying this important legislation was a significant step for the UK in committing to modern norms regarding cultural property protection. Implementing the legislation was only one part of that commitment.

The UK Government has in Summer 2021 submitted its first periodic report to UNESCO detailing the actions taken to ensure it is delivering its obligations under the Convention.

The report identifies the following measures the UK Government has taken:

  • created a criminal offence aimed at protecting cultural property under threat in conflict situations (including dealing in cultural property unlawfully exported from an occupied territory, knowing or having reason to suspect such unlawful export);
  • identified individual assets across the UK that the Convention covers. This list has been collated by Historic England and submitted to the UK Defence Geographic Service;
  • set up a Cultural Protection Fund in partnership with the British Council. “The Fund has enabled over 45,000 people across the MENA region to undertake activities that increase understanding of, or engagement with, cultural heritage; and over 15,000 people have received new skills training and capacity building in cultural heritage protection
  • all Royal Navy personnel must complete mandatory training in the Law of Armed Conflict, which includes instructions regarding the protection of cultural property in accordance with the Convention”;
  • the Ministry of Defence has established a Cultural Property Protection Unit, which provides advice to the Armed Forces; and
  • published various reports and internet resources relating to the Convention, making them accessible to the public.

On average, the UK has assessed its degree of implementation between partially and fully implemented. However, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the Act to date, and its empirical effectiveness remains to be seen.

The Art & Luxury team has unparalleled expertise in all matters relating to cultural property and has advised private collectors on the voluntary restitution of cultural artefacts to their source country.