Cultural property protection

  • Last updated: 20 May. 2019 12:10

The profound and devastating effects of armed conflict on cultural heritage are well documented: the bombing of the Old Town in Dubrovnik, Croatia – a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the shelling of the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and the destruction of the two giant Buddha statues in Bamyan province in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The preamble of NATO’s founding treaty states that “the parties to this Treaty are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples”. Cultural property is a vital part of people’s identity and of all humanity. NATO intends to, whenever possible and appropriate, protect and safeguard cultural property, which is part of the planning, conduct and after-action review of its operations and missions.

In Kosovo, part of NATO’s mandate is to protect the Visoki Monastery in Decani.


  • Recent NATO operations in Afghanistan, Libya or earlier in the Balkans bear evidence to the increasing prominent and complex role of cultural property protection in armed conflict.
  • People’s identity is often connected to symbols that are reflected in cultural property, such as buildings, monuments, artefacts or architecture. Destroying such symbols can shatter links to the past, thus erasing an identity from historical memory.
  • The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its protocols provide the regulatory instruments, complemented by human rights law and international criminal law as well as UNESCO conventions.
  • Cultural property protection is an essential part of the military environment and plays a specific role in NATO’s tactical, operational and strategic considerations.
  • It contributes to post-conflict stabilisation efforts and aims to strengthen trust and cooperation with local populations.

More background information

  • The rationale for cultural property protection

    Cultural property protection (CPP) in armed conflicts is part of international humanitarian law (also known as the Law of Armed Conflict/LOAC).

    It is – with a few exceptions where provisions have to be observed even during peacetime – only applicable in the case of armed conflict and in the case of military occupation of foreign territory.

    Due to the complexity of conflicts, CPP has shifted from the cultural sector to the defence sector. It has evolved to an important topic of international security measures, incorporating military and civilian resources, cooperation among states, as well as national and international organisations.

    In recent years, cultural property is increasingly becoming a target of both armed attack and intentional destruction by belligerent actors, while at the same time emerging as a focus of political attention and elaborate protection initiatives by the international community.

    In the military context, the protection of cultural property in armed conflict is imperative. Avoidable destruction of, damage to or misappropriation of cultural property by military forces endangers mission success. It stirs up the hostility of local populations and offers the adversary a potent propaganda weapon. It can undermine support of the civilian populations of all parties to a conflict.  Furthermore, it makes post-conflict stabilisation and reconciliation efforts more difficult.

    On the other hand, looting and illegal trafficking of cultural property is a way in which criminal groups fund their activities. Prevention of looting can therefore curtail funding for criminal groups.

    The protection of cultural property is an integral part of NATO’s sustainable strategy to build peace and security.

  • Cultural property protection in NATO operations

    During a NATO-led operation, NATO member states are committed to taking all possible measures to avoid any kind of harm or damage to objects of cultural value, in particular those linked to the values and cultural identity of a population.

    Military commanders bear operational responsibility for ensuring that military forces abide by the rules of LOAC and adopt best practices in protecting cultural property in armed conflict.

    The 1954 Hague Convention obligates its States Parties, within their armed forces, to take measures on CPP in peacetime (training, exercises, implementation of guidelines, directives, manuals, etc.) and to cooperate with the civilian authorities who are primarily responsible for safeguarding cultural property.

    The NATO-accredited Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence, based in the Netherlands, recommends two forms of pre-deployment training in the field of CPP. The first one is a generic training regarding the importance of cultural property and CPP, including associated legal obligations, offered to all personnel prior to deployment. The second one is a country-specific cultural property pre-deployment training, in advance of a known mission at a given location.

    This training requirement for all military forces helps them to identify cultural sites and provides guidance on actions to be taken if cultural property is encountered when deployed. Before deployment, in accordance with operational regulations and procedures, Allied military personnel  liaise  with academia and host nations’ cultural experts, and acquire  detailed maps, imagery and any other types of spatial or intelligence products that provide information on known cultural property in the deployment area.

    Once deployed, NATO forces intend to, whenever possible and appropriate, protect and safeguard cultural property. In Kosovo, for instance, part of NATO’s mandate is to protect and support the protection of cultural sites such as monasteries. In Afghanistan, NATO forces participated in initiatives and projects on an ad hoc basis, such as offering cultural heritage courses, building temporary facilities to store archaeological finds, rebuilding the National Museum of Afghanistan and protecting cultural heritage in Ghazni.

    During Operation Unified Protector in Libya, NATO used the data provided by several sources, such as UNESCO and academia, in order to integrate cultural property protection in the planning of NATO airstrikes.