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Why is international law relevant for heritage protection?

An interview with Amy Strecker, research coordinator of the theme ‘Heritage Under Threat’ for the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development.

'International protection of heritage is needed for several reasons,' says Amy Strecker. 'First, important elements of the cultural and natural heritage are considered not as mere private or public property, but as "common heritage" that transcends national boundaries and therefore requires international cooperation. Second, heritage is closely connected to human rights and the environment, both of which entail a limitation on the absolute sovereignty of states.'

 

Amy StreckerWith her colleague Joe Powderly from the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, Amy Strecker was recently awarded a Leiden University Global Interactions Advanced Seminar grant (GIAS) for a project on heritage destruction, human rights and international law. 

The project analyses cultural heritage destruction from an interdisciplinary perspective and involves a collaboration between the Faculty of Archaeology and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies that arose through  the Centre for Global Heritage and Development research group Heritage under Threat.

First of all, what is your role at the Faculty of Archaeology?

'I am an Assistant Professor in Heritage Governance at the Heritage Department of the Leiden University Faculty of Archaeology. I lecture in international heritage law both here at the Faculty of Archaeology and at Leiden University College, the Hague. I am also the research coordinator of the theme ‘Heritage Under Threat’ for the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Global Heritage and Development.

My research focuses on the interplay between landscape, heritage and international law, particularly in relation to human rights and spatial justice. I am currently working on a number of research projects, including an ERC-Synergy project (Nexus1492) in which I analyse the role of international law in confronting the colonial past in the Caribbean, specifically in relation to indigenous land rights, cultural heritage and restitution.'

How is your research connected to the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development?  

'My research connects to the Centre because it is concerned with global protection of landscape, conceived as both cultural heritage and environment. International heritage law is connected with other disciplines outside the law, including archaeology, anthropology and cultural geography, which is why the interdisciplinary approach of the Centre is so important. I think we need interdisciplinary research in the field because cultural heritage is value-laden and requires context-based research and local knowledge to inform decision-making. It also involves balancing of rights and an amount of dynamism and flexibility, which pose challenges for law makers.'

We need interdisciplinary research in the field because cultural heritage is value-laden and requires context-based research and local knowledge to inform decision-making.

Can you tell us about the Global Interactions project?

'Heritage has always been targeted in times of conflict and transition for its symbolic value. However, the difference between historical acts of iconoclasm and the destruction of heritage sites today is that we now have a general consensus, embodied in the corpus of international law, that intentionally destroying cultural heritage is an international wrong and, except in the case of absolute military necessity, a war crime entailing individual criminal responsibility. This was made very clear in the recent Al Mahdi case at the International Criminal Court, which concerned the deliberate attack on cultural sites in the World Heritage city of Timbuktu, Mali.

However, despite the proclamation of heritage destruction in situations of conflict as an international wrong, no such assertion can be made for its equivalent in peacetime. The most developed jurisprudence on cultural heritage destruction has been made in the context of international criminal law, yet conversely it is the area with the most limited conceptualisation of cultural heritage.'

There is a  widespread heritage destruction that often goes under the radar.

While cases such as Al Mahdi contribute to the awareness that heritage protection matters, there is a more widespread heritage destruction that often goes under the radar, heritage that is not in the spotlight and which may fall through the gaps of the institutional and normative framework dealing with heritage protection in peacetime, especially heritage sites and cultural landscapes affected by large scale resource extraction or infrastructural projects.'

'This GIAS project, which is jointly organised with my colleague Joe Powderly from the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, aims to take a fresh look at the issue of heritage destruction by combining legal analysis with cultural criticism.  Our aim is to move beyond the usual focus of international law on the destruction and threat to heritage in the context of armed conflict to also include an examination of heritage under threat in peacetime, and the role of human rights law in this regard. By scrutinising the current international framework dealing with heritage destruction, our goal is to reassess the various avenues for accessing justice in global heritage governance.

Our aim is to move beyond the usual focus of international law on the destruction and threat to heritage in armed conflict to also include an examination of heritage under threat in peacetime.

Timbuktu
In 2016, the International Criminal Court in The Hague found Mr. al Faqi al Mahdi guilty of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion in Timbuktu, Mali.

Why is international law relevant for heritage protection?

'International protection of heritage is needed for several reasons. First, important elements of the cultural and natural heritage are considered not as mere private or public property, but as ‘common heritage’ that transcends national boundaries and therefore requires international cooperation. Second, heritage is closely connected to human rights and the environment, both of which entail a limitation on the absolute sovereignty of states. However, unlike human rights and environmental protection, states still have a wide margin of appreciation in heritage matters.

Heritage protection is not only the aim of international cultural heritage law, but also other areas of law such as international humanitarian law, international human rights law, international environmental law and international criminal law. However, there is no international court for the settlement of heritage disputes. Heritage is protected instead in more ‘soft’ ways, from listing in the case of World Heritage, to inventories, zoning, incentives, education and awareness raising, and public participation in heritage policies.'

Heritage is closely connected to human rights and the environment, both of which entail a limitation on the absolute sovereignty of states.

What do you teach your students on international law and heritage at Leiden University?

'I teach my students many topics, starting usually with the concept of heritage and how it has evolved over time, the development of the international framework for heritage protection, how heritage protection relates to human rights, the use of heritage in conflict and cultural crimes, landscape and agency, landscape and democracy, and indigenous peoples rights.

I ask my students to think about why do we protect something, who makes the decisions, for whom or in whose name, to what end, and what the consequence of that protection will be. I also ask my students to think critically and not just assume something should be protected for its own sake.'

What do you hope to achieve with the GIAS project?

'Our first step is to organize an international seminar in the Spring of 2018 that will involve the participation of prominent scholars in the fields of heritage studies and international law. Based on the outcome of the seminar, we aim to publish an edited collection or a special issue of a relevant journal in the field of heritage studies and international law. Long-term, Joe and I would like to see this as the first step towards a research agenda on the topic and further collaboration between the Faculty of Archaeology, the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, and the Centre for Global Heritage and Development.'

 

Meer informatie vindt u op:
Amy Strecker at Leiden University
Centre for Global Heritage and Development: Theme 'Heritage under Threat'
Read also: 'Spotlight on Dr. Joe Powderly' (Leiden Law School)
Leiden University Research Focus Area 'Global Interactions'
Nexus1492
MOOC 'Heritage under Threat'