ISIS’ Destruction of Cultural Treasures: Reason for Education and Legal Enforcement

By: Kelsey Quigley

On March 6, 2015, media sources reported that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had leveled the ancient Assyrian citadel of Nimrud in northern Iraq. Nimrud served as the royal seat and military capital of the Assyrian Empire, which flourished between 900 B.C. and 612 B.C. The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities denounced this destruction by ISIS “lost gangs” as “criminal”, and lamented more irreversible destruction to human history, as the Islamic group “continues to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity.”

Indeed, the damage to Nimrud represents the latest development in ISIS’s systematic attack on the region’s ancient human history. Just a week prior, a video depicted ISIS militants toppling centuries-old statues and taking sledgehammers to artifacts in the nearby Mosul Museum. Meanwhile, militants burned books and rare manuscripts from the Mosul Library. In September of last year, ISIS destroyed the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Der Zor, Syria, which housed the remains of victims of the genocide. Just months prior to that, in July, ISIS planted explosives around the Tomb of Jonah, destroying Iraq’s oldest mosque and the shrine to Jonah, or Yunus in Arabic, a prophet in both Judeo-Christian and Islamic histories. (The shrine also supposedly contained a tooth from the whale that so famously swallowed the prophet.) Unfortunately, this list is only a brief, most-recent catalogue amidst the larger cultural destruction that ISIS is undertaking throughout its stronghold in the very birthplace of human civilization.

Why the cultural nihilism? Why destroy the foundations of humanity, upon which the Islamic religion itself is built? In the case of the Tomb of Jonah, the destruction seems especially contradictory: Why would ISIS destroy a mosque? Various theories all center upon a common religious-military strategy. Under a guise of combating idolatry, ISIS destroys windows into ancient human civilizations to eliminate evidence of non-Islamic human history, and in the words of Professor Sam Hardy from the American University of Rome, to obliterate “even [] the possibility of people living together under their rule.” In announcing its “strongest possible” condemnation of the recent Nimurd destruction, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova explained that “nothing is safe from [ISIS’s] cultural cleansing,” as “it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage.” Ironically, ISIS fails to take lessons from the very civilizations whose memories it violates—history’s most powerful regimes, including Rome and Assyria, invaded and assimilated—capitalizing on the cultural strengths of enemies turned citizens.

On a more practical level, ISIS vandalizes these historic sites to fund its ongoing military campaigns. The organization sells the artifacts it does not destroy on the black market for antiquities. This represents yet another ideological hypocrisy fundamental to the group’s operation. ISIS claims to destroy these human treasures in the name of combating idolatry, and yet the extremist group eagerly funds its endeavors by exploiting the prestige and value of those idols. It conducts business directly with, and is funded by, the very idolaters it condemns.

Calls for Education to Protect Cultural Property

In a piece published in the aftermath of the Nimrud leveling, Sturt Manning, a Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cornell University and Director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, called on fellow archaeologists to raise awareness and appreciation for human history worldwide. He argued that, in conjunction with work done by teachers, professors, and museum curators, archaeologists can serve as sources for anthropology and archaeology education, and that this education will breed increased ownership and pride in human history and increased pressure against hypocritical and irreversible vandalism—in Iraq, throughout ISIS strongholds, and across the globe. Similarly, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova called on people across the globe, “especially youth, in Iraq and elsewhere, to do everything possible to protect this heritage, to claim it as their own, and as the heritage of the whole of humanity.”

While these calls for education and cultural pride are heartening sentiments, they seem only, at best, applicable to conflicts far beyond the current ISIS conflict in Iraq and Syria. Even in the long run, the call for worldwide archaeology education and pride overlooks the practical realties of life in a war-torn region.

First of all, it seems futile to argue that ISIS, a group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate governed by Sharia Law, will be amenable to archeologists’ concerned youths’ pleas for appreciation of priceless Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, and other ancient societies’ artifacts. It is impossible to see how this secular education would penetrate tightly controlled ISIS territories. Moreover, questions remain as to whether this would foster appreciation and protection or just invigorate their apparent passion for destruction—revealing the quantity and importance of ideological targets.

Even if this education did reach ISIS supporters and foster appreciation, concern for human history would not likely take precedence over concern for human life. Indeed, ISIS, despite its strict rule, is a lifeline to those communities that it invades—providing rations and security to desperate populations. It is difficult to imagine that historic appreciation will galvanize desperate inhabitants to defend antiquities when ISIS troops invade, and even less so as the extremist group feeds, clothes, and protects occupied regions.

The Laws of War and Cultural Property

Indeed, effective prevention of these tragedies may lie in the application of the international humanitarian law (IHL) and the enforcement mechanisms that breaches thereof provide. Historically, conflicts involved formally recognized states—what IHL categorizes as an international armed conflicts (IACs). Many States—including Iraq and Syria—are signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Among other things, the Hague Convention requires signatories to respect cultural property and refrain from acts of hostility directed against such property; to establish special military units responsible for the protection of cultural property; and to submit to sanctions for breaches. Because ISIS is not recognized as a formal state—or a UN Member State—it cannot be a signatory of the Hague Convention. Moreover, the conflict is better categorized as a non-international armed conflict (NIAC)—one between formally recognized states and non-state actors. But the lack of ratification of the treaty does not necessarily absolve ISIS, a non-state actor, of responsibility for preventing or carrying out what would otherwise be considered a violation of treaty provisions. After all, UNESCO Director General categorized the recent Nimrud destruction as a “war crime.”

Customary law provides another avenue by which to ascribe liability and to attribute responsibility for violations of treaties that have not been signed. Customary international law binds all parties to an armed conflict, regardless of their treaty obligations. Therefore, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), and backed by overlapping legal theories, armed non-state actors are liable for international humanitarian law (IHL) violations—especially those considered customary law. To become customary international law the practice must satisfy two elements: there must be evidence of state practice and a belief that the practice is required as a matter of law. In 2005, the ICRC emphasized the role and development of customary international law in IHL in a study that enunciated what rules met the two-part test. The study concluded that 160 such rules are considered customary international laws. The protection of cultural property was adjudged by ICRC to be customary international law under rules thirty-eight through forty, which read:

Rule 38. Each party to the conflict must respect cultural property:

  1. Special care must be taken in military operations to avoid damage to buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, education or charitable purposes and historic monuments unless they are military objectives.
  2. Property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people must not be the object of attack unless imperatively required by military necessity.

Rule 39. The use of property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage is prohibited, unless imperatively required by military necessity.

Rule 40. Each party to the conflict must protect cultural property:

  1. All seizure of or destruction or [sic] wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity, education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science is prohibited.
  2. Any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people is prohibited.

As noted above, ISIS has likely violated many, if not most of these rules.


Just as modern international humanitarian law (IHL) theories account for the pricelessness of civilian life and human dignity in non-state conflict, these considerations also extend to the pricelessness of human cultural history. Perhaps, in conjunction with encouraging the aforementioned cultural education and appreciation, the invocation and enforcement of customary international law can help prevent further cultural destruction in modern warfare. And, if the ICRC’s interpretation is correct, the recent ISIS destruction is indeed a war crime, regardless of the organization’s formal treaty obligations. Therefore, the modern fight to preserve priceless human history can be simultaneously fought on both the educational and enforcement fronts

Kelsey Quigley is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law.  Shee is a student contributor to Travaux.

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