Attacking cultural property is a war crime and Trump knows it

Once again US president Donald Trump uses Twitter to start a new conflict, this time saying that he would attack Iranian cultural sites if necessary, even though doing that during any type of conflict is a war crime.

In early January, tensions between the United States and Iran were raised sharply after US President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, killing him near the Baghdad airport. A series of events following his death rapidly aggravated the already complicated relationship between the countries. One of those events was a January 4th tweet by Trump stating that if Iran attacked any Americans, they would be attacked back, and that he already had targeted 52 sites, including cultural sites and important places for the Iran history. 

The Pentagon rapidly distanced itself from Trump’s declaration that he would attack Iranian cultural sites. Attacking cultural sites is prohibited by international laws. The U.S. will “follow the laws of armed conflict,” said the Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Those laws were created after World War II in the Geneva Convention, to preserve cultural sites in various countries because history could be lost if those were destroyed. 

This kind of attack has happened before during the Third Reich when the Nazis looted pieces of art from different countries in Europe. During and after the Word War II, the United States government tried to identify, retrieve and return the stolen art. Many pieces are still missing even after all these years. 

After World War II the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of War was signed. It was the first international treaty that focus on the protection of cultural property in case of an armed conflict. The convention states that there is a minimum respect which all states must observe in respect of cultural property and that they must not attack or destroy it in any case. 

In 2001, when Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar targeted cultural sites when they took control of Afghanistan. The Buddhas of Bamyan, were two 6th-century monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in Afghanistan. The extremist Islamic group used two prisoners to install bombs in the statues after failing to destroy the statues with tanks and artillery shells. Mirza Hussain, one of the men used by the Taliban to install the bombs said in an interview to the BBC article, “First they fired at the Buddhas with tanks and artillery shells, but when that was ineffective, they planted explosives to try to destroy them.”

Image: NBC News 

Targeting cultural sites creates the impression that you are not just against the government of a country involved in a military confrontation, but also engaged in a cultural confrontation, targeting an ethnic group. Lindsey Graham made this point when dissuading Donald Trump. “We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” he reportedly told Trump.

Despite repeatedly threatening to attack Iran’s cultural sites, after backlash from allies, President Trump walked back his threat. But even as he did so he made it clear how unfair he felt it was to expect the US to not commit war crimes. 

“If that’s what the law is — I like to obey the law,” Trump said. “But think of it, they kill our people, they blow up our people, but then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions.”

“But I’m okay with it. It’s okay with me.” 

Image Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

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