Does the International Community Have a Legal Obligation to Respond to ISIL Attacks on Cultural Heritage Sites?

By Anthony Zurcher

Palmyra, an ancient city in central Syria, presents one of the more stunning exposés of ancient Semitic life. Distinct in both architecture and style, the city attained prominence in the 3rd century BCE as an important caravan stop and regional center. Built on an oasis, Palmyra provided a central point for main trade routes throughout the Middle East and effectively connected Rome to Mesopotamia. The ruins of Palmyra have long fascinated archeologists and historians alike, and they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Early age Christian churches, temples devoted to the Aramean deities of the epoch, statues and arches representing phenomenal feats of architecture, and a Roman amphitheater have been uncovered among other artifacts. Historians often suggest that the city’s prosperous nature directly contributed to the establishment of such a notable historic site. And although history has reduced it to nothing more than a small village, Palmyra’s archeological site provides a vivid if not complete picture of the once bustling metropolitan city.

In May 2015, Palmyra came under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). A jihadist extremist militant group composed mostly of Salafi Arabs (a branch of Sunni Islam), ISIL became known to the international community for self-proclaiming an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The group’s tactics have been met with significant controversy, as they involve human rights abuses, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Most notorious is ISIL’s presence on social media, through which it posts videos of beheadings and destruction of cultural heritage sites. Although the group originally proclaimed it was going to leave the site of Palmyra untouched, its occupation of the city caused serious concern (particularly following the well-publicized destruction of statues in Mosul’s world-renown museum and the assault on the UNESCO site of Hatra only a month prior).

On May 23, 2015, ISIL destroyed a statue at Palmyra known as the Lion of Al-lat. Dating back to the first century BCE, the lion was widely regarded as one of the finest untouched examples of pre-Islamic art in the Middle East. But the carnage would not stop there. On August 23, 2015, ISIL destroyed the Temple of Baal Shamen, and proceeded to destroy the Temple of Bel on August 30. On September 4, 2015, the militants blew up several rare tower tombs located at the site. And most recently, ISIL destroyed the famed Arch of Triumph, perhaps the most well known fixture at Palmyra.

Does the international community have a responsibility to intervene? It is worth noting that the destruction has inevitably led to loss of life. ISIL militants reportedly killed the archeologist who looked after the ruins at Palmyra after he refused to tell them where other artifacts had been hidden. Additionally, the group has used the site to conduct mass executions, such as the one that occurred there in July 2015. The UN has condemned the destruction of Palmyra and other similarly situated historical sites, but has yet to affirmatively act. Many pundits suggest that it is the international community’s duty to save heritage and humanity from ISIL. But what are the legal implications? Post your comments below, and let us know what you think.