Cultural Heritage and the War in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is the latest example of the role cultural heritage can play in violent conflicts and war. When Ukrainian cultural heritage is destroyed to be replaced by Russian cultural heritage, it is an attempt to make the population feel cut off from Ukraine and closer to Russia. The reverse also happened on the Ukrainian side after the fall of the Soviet Union, when thousands of Soviet monuments were taken down. Cultural heritage is an important issue of identity. The destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage shows that the war in Ukraine is not just about security and economic issues. Destroying tangible, and also intangible cultural heritage by, for example, banning traditions, languages or even an emotive word, is a form of psychological, moral and political warfare. And it is effective .
International initiatives to protect cultural heritage in Ukraine are numerous, and many actors are involved with overlapping mandates. These initiatives focus on monitoring damages, emergency relief measures, training of heritage professionals, digitization of inventories and archives, support of the cultural sector and awareness raising . UNESCO published a statement calling for the protection of cultural heritage, with specific emphasis on World Heritage Sites, and condemning any attacks against cultural property. The statement by ICOMOS reiterated the fragility of cultural heritage and the responsibility of care concerning the relevant international conventions. The Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk in Ukraine was issued by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 2022 summer to present those types of objects such as manuscripts, icons, religious artefacts, and jewellery, in total more than 50 object types, that are the most likely to be looted and sold on the international art market .
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the Historic Centre of Odesa (Ukraine) on the World Heritage List in January 2023 as the 8th World Heritage Site of Ukraine, despite the opposition of Russia. Part of the site was immediately added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The listing is not just a symbolic act though. UNESCO implemented emergency measures such as repairing damage to the museum buildings to protect the collections and digitization of artworks and archival materials. This is just a part of UNESCO activities in Ukraine: in partnership with local authorities and non-governmental organizations, they monitor damage and loss in terms of heritage assets, the impact of war on the cultural sector, support artists, and so on .
Within this context, various solutions were proposed by the international community:
(1) States should have measures in place before a conflict breaks out.
(2) Cultural heritage protection should be integrated into the international system for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping.
(3) Independent monitoring of the impact of armed conflicts on cultural heritage would enhance accountability for war crimes, as well as post-conflict peacebuilding efforts .
The debate unfortunately remains relevant. When national and cultural infrastructure is attacked, people become afraid and risk losing their sense of existing as a group or nation. Social resources are part of the cultural heritage that is threatened in war: the structures of society, contact with neighbours and the things that give people context. Moreover, protecting cultural heritage is important for the possibility of peace-building and reconciliation after a violent conflict. Evidence of the pre-war period is needed to learn from the past and to reflect on what has happened. If everything is torn down, there are no references any more. This is why cultural heritage also plays a major role in reconstruction processes .