On 16 March, the Friends of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Network—a platform initiated by Geneva Call—held a high-level panel discussion at the American University of Beirut entitled Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict. Around 50 participants from Lebanon and abroad representing local and international organizations, academia, the Lebanese state and its armed forces, as well as embassies, discussed the issues faced by local and international actors attempting to protect cultural heritage in the region.
“The law is clear and attacks on cultural heritage are criminal,” said General Naim Ziade (rtd), president of the Lebanese Committee for the Blue Shield. However, not everyone is aware of the law and the protection it offers to cultural heritage. “I had not heard of this topic until now,” said Assaad Chaftari, a former fighter and currently the president of Fighters for Peace.
“In today’s conflicts, and more specifically in this region, there is a need to raise awareness of international norms protecting cultural heritage among armed non-State actors and hold them accountable to these rules,” said Hiba Mikhail from Geneva Call while sharing initial findings of a study on this topic led by the organization. Geneva Call is developing a dialogue with several armed groups on this issue, including with Syrian armed actors.
The UNESCO representative, Ms Cristina Menegazzi, explained why cultural heritage should be protected. “Culture is like water to fish: a fish does not know water exists until it jumps out of it,” she said. “Countries will lose their identity without their cultural heritage.” The Director-General of the Ministry of Culture, Mr Sarkis Khoury, also explained that Lebanese cultural heritage was the result of the conflicts and wars endured in the region, but which were at the heart of its richness.
When it comes to accountability and how to bring violators of these laws to court, Ms Jelena Plamenac, from Diakonia, expressed the difficulties in addressing violations of cultural heritage during ongoing armed conflicts.
The Network will pursue its work of spreading humanitarian norms among regional stakeholders through more events and an online platform that will be launched next month. The first of its kind in the region, the Network was launched in November 2017 as a joint initiative between Geneva Call, the Human Rights Legal Clinic at La Sagesse University, Diakonia’s IHL Resource Desk and the Lebanese Committee for the Blue Shield to reinforce respect for the humanitarian norms protecting civilians in armed conflict and situations of armed violence.