Attacking Iran’s cultural sites would violate the Hague Cultural Property Convention

By | January 6, 2020

John Bellinger writes:

On Sunday, President Trump — as he is wont to do when criticized — doubled down on his threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites if Iran attacks the United States in response to the killing of Qassim Suleimani.

Although the United States is not a party to the Rome Statue, which makes intentional attacks on historic monuments a war crime, the United States is a party to the 1954 Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which the Senate approved in September 2008, when I was Legal Adviser. The Bush Administration strongly supported Senate approval of the treaty, and I testified in favor of it in April 2008, along with DoD Deputy General Counsel Chuck Allen and a senior JCS military representative. The Bush Administration supported ratification of the treaty because it reflected longstanding U.S. practice of not targeting cultural sites in wartime. I testified at the time that “we have concluded that U.S. practice is entirely consistent with this Convention and that ratifying it will cause no problems for the United States or for the conduct of U.S. military operations.” [Continue reading…]

CNN reports:

Two senior US officials on Sunday described widespread opposition within the administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran should the United States launch retaliatory strikes against Tehran, despite President Donald Trump saying a day before that such sites are among dozens the US has identified as potential targets.

“Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” one of the officials told CNN.

“The Persian people hold a deeply influential and beautiful history of poetry, logic, art and science. Iran’s leaders do not live up to that history. But America would be better served by leaders who embrace Persian culture, not threaten to destroy it,” they added.
“Consistent with laws and norms of armed conflict, we would respect Iranian culture,” the second senior US official said. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reported this evening:

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.

Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Mr. Esper agreed. “That’s the laws of armed conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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