Targeting Cultural Sites in War Is Illegal. It’s Also Barbaric.

The wars and insurgencies that battered the Middle East over the last decade delivered not only a horrible toll of death and displacement, but also a wasteland of cultural destruction, reducing to rubble the Assyrian gates of Nineveh, the Great Mosque of Aleppo and countless other treasures, ancient and modern.

This past weekend the American commander-in-chief, scrambling to contain the fallout from the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran, proclaimed via Twitter that “if Iran strikes any Americans,”‌ the United States would retaliate by blasting a list of 52 Iranian sites that he said were “important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Historians, legal scholars, and Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren noted that targeting sites of cultural importance in this way would constitute a war crime — and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went out of his way to clarify on Sunday morning television that “the American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target.”

But Mr. Trump reaffirmed that he saw culture as fair game. “They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president told reporters on Air Force One. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Despite the president’s threats, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday explicitly ruled out targeting cultural sites in Iran in response to any Iranian attacks.

There’s a reason the Pentagon said as much: The targeted destruction of such antiquities is, unambiguously, a war crime. The most relevant legal instrument is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted to prevent the type of plundering of art the Nazis undertook during World War II.

The convention states, among other principles, that countries “shall refrain from any act directed by way of reprisals against cultural property.” (The United States Senate, with the support of the Bush administration, ratified the convention in 2008.) Such acts of war would also obviously violate the UNESCO‌ World Heritage Convention, which establishes that national treasures also form part of a protected global patrimony.

These are, indeed, live legal issues. In 2016, the International Criminal Court — to which the United States is still not a party — completed its first successful cultural war crimes prosecution, when a Malian extremist pleaded guilty to having demolished a mosque in the ancient city of Timbuktu. In 2017, the United Nations Security Council affirmed that “directing unlawful attacks against sites and buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, or historic monuments, may constitute, under certain circumstances and pursuant to international law, a war crime.” The resolution was adopted unanimously; the ambassador representing the Trump administration noted that such “wanton devastation” was often the work of ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But the Hague Convention and UNESCO’s efforts have proved woefully insufficient to stanch the global tide of cultural destruction — whether in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Afghanistan and the Caucasus in the 2000s and most recently in Syria and northern Iraq. The 2010s brought with them an appalling cataclysm of both pre-Islamic and Muslim sites there, sometimes as collateral damage and sometimes, horribly, as a deliberate act of war. And it is this pile of ruins that Mr. Trump, sounding more like an ISIS thug than the leader of the world’s most formidable military, threatened this weekend to increase.

Some of the most egregious such destruction has been at Palmyra, the ancient city in the‌ Syrian desert, where ISIS‌ fighters blew up temples and beheaded a museum director. As numerous archaeologists pointed out at the time, ISIS‌ destroyed cultural sites not only to satisfy an extreme jihadist conviction, but as a deliberate provocation. Murdering one person, or a hundred people, is not enough for some; murdering history delivers another kind of damage.

Iran is rich in antiquities. When Mr. Trump first made his threat, my mind went to the pre-Islamic city of Persepolis, the capital of Achaemenid Persia, with its colossal ruins of free-standing columns and bearded bulls. Nearby is the Tomb of Cyrus, built in the 6th century B.C., enclosing the bones of a ruler who conquered most of Western Asia.

Islamic masterpieces include the beautiful, Safavid-period Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan and the Pink Mosque of Shiraz, whose stained-glass windows flood the halls of worship with colored light. Nor can modern creations — such as the Avicenna Mausoleum in Hamadan, dedicated to the greatest scholar of the Islamic Golden Age — be omitted from any list of sites of Iranian cultural significance.

Museum directors, including the leaders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria &‌ Albert Museum in London, have naturally voiced their disapproval. “Threatening cultural sites in Iran,”‌ said Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “is to reduce Western values to those of the ISIS fanatics.” I‌ would go further:‌ it is not “Western” but global values that are debased with threats like this, and not just Iranian culture but global culture that is in danger. Yet even as the secretaries of defense and state insist that laws must be followed, Mr. Trump bemoans that “they” can do evil, but “we” cannot. He himself has expressed clearly enough that values, of any kind, are not the matter in question.

As I came to terms with Mr. Trump’s threats, my mind kept flashing to a novel: J.M. Coetzee’s spare allegory “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which the South African writer published in 1980, during the years of apartheid. It’s a tale of a military operation, prosecuted by an empire grown old and fearful. The true barbarians, in Mr. Coetzee’s book, are not the insurgents; the barbarians are the men in power.

“To the last we will have learned nothing,” says Mr. Coetzee’s narrator at the end. “In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.”

A barbarian is someone who looks at culture and finds no beauty at all. A barbarian looks at a mosque or a burial mound, and dreams only of exacting pain.

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