A call to protect cultural property in Ukraine and all other zones of conflict

As a charitable non-governmental organization that is dedicated to cultural heritage, Walk of Truth abhors the fresh outbreak of violence in Ukraine following the Russian invasion launched on 24 February 2022.  Since then, many human lives have been lost and even more people have been injured, forcibly displaced from their homes or otherwise made to suffer.  The victims have included the most vulnerable of people including pregnant women, mothers who have recently given birth, hospitalised children, the disabled, the elderly and, of course, the bereaved.  Walk of Truth dreads to think of the agony that such people are enduring.  

In recent days, the dead have included a number of journalists, whose trade forms part of the cultural heritage of our common humanity.  Furthermore, deeply troubling allegations have emerged about the damage that has been inflicted to cultural sites, educational institutions, other buildings and the wider environment as well as pets, other animals and wildlife generally. 

In view of its massive humanitarian, geopolitical and economic ramifications, the conflict involving Russia and Ukraine has understandably grabbed the attention of the world.  However, it must not eclipse other grim realities.  One is that the world is scarred by other ongoing or frozen conflicts that have resulted in mass loss of life, mass forms of human suffering and mass assaults on cultural heritage. 

In addition to the conflict involving Russia and Ukraine, these other conflicts include two others in Europe which Walk of Truth has been closely monitoring over the past few years – those involving Turkey and Cyprus plus the one involving Armenia and Azerbaijan.  All six of these states are state parties to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and, thus, members of the Council of Europe.  However, whereas Cyprus is a state party to the Rome Statute and whereas Armenia and Ukraine have become signatories but not state parties, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey are neither signatories nor state parties

This incongruous state of affairs is not conducive to the protection of human life, wildlife, cultural heritage and the environment in some of the most unstable parts of Europe. 

On the subject of cultural heritage in Ukraine, Walk of Truth notes the recent statements issued by UNESCO, and a plethora of other organisations associated with cultural heritage. These include Europa Nostra, the Europeana Initiative, Getty, the International Council of Museums, and the Smithsonian.

With regard to international human rights law and international humanitarian law in the context of Ukraine, Walk of Truth further notes the statements issued by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights on 24 February 2022, Human Rights Watch on the same day, and the International Committee of the Red Cross on 4 March 2022.

Bearing in mind its base in The Hague, Walk of Truth is particularly mindful of the various Ukraine-related documents published by the International Court of Justice on 27 February as well as 1 March 2022 and 16 March 2022. These include the Order of the Court, dated 16 March 2022, in the case entitled Allegations of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Ukraine v Russian Federation).  This Order has worldwide implications, particularly in view of paragraph 18 in which the Court ‘deems it necessary to emphasize that all States must act in conformity with their obligations under the United Nations Charter and other rules of international law, including international humanitarian law.’  Universal respect for these obligations is not only essential to safeguard states and to save lives but to protect properties and preserve cultural heritage.

Walk of Truth is also mindful of the Ukraine-related statement issued by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on 28 February and 2 March 2022.

Walk of Truth demands that all parties to all ongoing and frozen conflicts must respect international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international law generally.  Moreover, bearing in mind its base in The Hague, Walk of Truth demands that all such parties must comply with all relevant instruments of international law including those associated with The Hague such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict plus its two Protocols from 1954 and 1999 and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

With the foregoing realities in mind, Walk of Truth ends this statement by reminding all of the 123 state parties to the Rome Statute and the wider world of the principled opening words of the Preamble to this Statute:

The States Parties to this Statute,

Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time,

Mindful that during this [i.e., the twentieth] century millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity,

Recognizing that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world,

Affirming that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation,

Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes,

Recalling that it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes,

Reaffirming the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular that all States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations,

Emphasizing in this connection that nothing in this Statute shall be taken as authorizing any State Party to intervene in an armed conflict or in the internal affairs of any State,

Determined to these ends and for the sake of present and future generations, to establish an independent permanent International Criminal Court in relationship with the United Nations system, with jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,

Emphasizing that the International Criminal Court established under this Statute shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions,

Resolved to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice …’

These principled words must result in concrete actions for the sake of our common humanity and in the interests of our common cultural heritage.

Walk of Truth

28 March 2022

Walk of Truth is an NGO based in the Hague, the Netherlands, and campaigns for the protection of cultural heritage from violence and the recovery of stolen artworks and antiquities.