International Humanitarian Law

Whilst I had worked in the field of Diplomatic Law as a trainee solicitor in London, see and am a published and cited authority on the ‘Inviolability of Diplomatic and Consular Premises’, my entry into the field of International Humanitarian Law, was through my study of the Protection of Cultural Property under IHL, as part of the Diploma in Art Law course which I undertook at the Institute of Art & Law in London between 2020 and 2023. See my essay below about IHL, which I wrote and submitted for the course. The Diploma was awarded on 13 December 2023.

Essay – ‘Cultural Heritage Diplomacy & IHL – Are Principles of Humanity under International Humanitarian Law a diplomatic tool in mediating a peace process and agreement?’


In this essay the author argues that:

  • Cultural Heritage is part of our shared humanity.
  • Cultural Heritage is entwined with UNESCO’s broader mandate concerning human rights, the rule of law, development, and peace.
  • The duty of a state to protect Cultural Heritage (‘CH’) is quintessentially a fiduciary duty under International Humanitarian Law (‘IHL‘). The underlying premise is that every civilized society is a fiduciary of humanity, and so are their governments.
  • Intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity.
  • Destruction of CH is not only a war crime under IHL it can also be a political mistake – that is the paradox of Machiavelli’s Principle of Survival (‘MPS’).
  • If the destruction of CH has the potential to politically destabilise the aggressor (‘H’ i.e. a Hegemon), then it follows that  surrounding states in the region (‘SIR’s’) also have a national security interest in the survival of H.
  • Therein, and counter-intuitively, lies the seed of a principle that can result in the mediation of terms of peace which ensure the survival of both H and the sovereign state invaded by H. If this geo-political interest is recognised by all parties to the conflict and their supporters, that could open the door to a mediated dialogue using cultural heritage as a language of diplomacy, to negotiate a ceasefire and peace agreement.
  • This is where a non-partisan Non-State Actor (‘NSA’) e.g. an NGO, can play an instrumental diplomatic and mediation role.

Strategic importance of Cultural Heritage

In the frequently quoted words of the 1954 Hague Convention, cultural property is ‘the cultural heritage of all mankind.’[i] In other words, Cultural Heritage it is part of our shared humanity. Therefore, we all have a common interest in preserving and protecting cultural property everywhere.

Cultural Heritage is entwined with UNESCO’s broader mandate concerning human rights, the rule of law, development, and peace.[ii]

‘Annihilation of cultural heritage is gradually evolving into an issue of peace and security in the 21st century. Destructive ideologies are not new in history, as the UNESCO Strategy, entitled ‘Reinforcement of UNESCO’s Action for the Protection of Culture and the Promotion of Cultural Pluralism in the Event of Armed Conflict’, acknowledges; but today “threats to cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict result from intentional destruction, collateral damage, forced neglect, as well as from organised looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects … [on] an unprecedented scale.”[iii] Intentional destruction of cultural heritage by extremist non-State actors, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic state (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, or Daesh) in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, may be seen as part of “ideological warfare against cultural property.”[iv] …’[v]

Cultural identity is considered to part of human dignity. It is linked to human rights because cultural heritage is of crucial importance to individuals and communities as part of their identity. As cultural heritage requires memory, this applies to both tangible and intangible heritage, because material and physical heritage needs to be placed in both a historical and cultural context, in order to understand its value.

‘The cultural heritage of a people is not limited to the tangible expressions of art, architecture, religion, poetry, or writing in general but also includes its intangible heritage, which is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity. More generally, cultural heritage includes the expressions of the people’s spirituality, and the body of values which give meaning to life’  (Francioni & Vrdoljak‘, p 77).

Duty to protect

The author’s thesis, is that when ‘Art’ (‘A’) is of cultural significance, i.e. is recognised as being ‘Cultural Heritage’  (‘CH’), it forms part of a recognised heritage. If then in either a narrow or a broad sense, it becomes part of civilization and a record of human evolution (i.e. part of the consciousness and collective memory of mankind), public duties do or should attach to possession. In particular, the possessor (‘P’) who owns A that is also CH, is also a custodian of the CH. In which case, duties attach to possession, e.g. a duty to preserve and protect the cultural property (‘DP). DP also applies to an underwater archaeological site, because as the French Archaeologist Salomon Reinach famously remarked, ‘The sea is the largest museum in the world’.  If P is a state, these duties extend to protecting the CH in the event of war. Therefore, DP is quintessentially a fiduciary duty under IHL.  The underlying premise is that every civilized society is a fiduciary of humanity, and so are their governments.[vi] This also highlights the existence of a potential intersection between: (i) ‘principles of humanity’ under IHL; and (ii) the existence of ‘fiduciary duties’ on state actors under foundational principles of international law – see Criddle & Fox-Decent (2009).

The paradox of Machiavelli’s Principle of Survival

In the 16th century, the strategist and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that ‘he who becomes a master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always [been] the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.’ (‘The Prince’, Chapter V – ‘Concerning The Way To Govern Cities Or Principalities Which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed.’)(1532). In other words, if you really want to destroy a people, its pride, it self esteem, and its sense of belonging to its own cultural identity, you need to destroy its cultural heritage, otherwise you will not be able to dominate. (‘Machiavelli’s principle of survival’) [‘MPS’].

‘The real target of most acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage is therefore, not the heritage in itself but the human communities for which such a heritage is of special significance.’ (‘Mens Rea of Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage’, by Federico Lenzerini, Chapter 4 of the Oxford Handbook of International Cultural Heritage Law’ (2020), Oxford University Press, page 77).

Analysing the psychology of an invasion through the hard geo-political lens of ‘Offensive Realism’ (see Mearsheimer 2014), if an invading sovereign state is a hegemon or an aspiring hegemon) (‘H’), and the political logic underlying invasion is survival, then since a hegemon must dominate in order to survive, there is a paradox, because PA requires the destruction of CH. In other words, to achieve its political objectives, H must destroy part of itself.

Therefore, invasion may be a political mistake[vii]. The miscalculation is that instead of H becoming stronger it will actually weaken itself, because by invading a state with a shared cultural heritage, H will to an extent destroy its own cultural identity. If that happens then over time, institutionally H may become unstable and ungovernable, resulting ultimately in the political break-up of H. In other words, institutionally, the destruction of cultural heritage by H is an act of political self-destruction.

The existential question for H then becomes, how do they end the war without ending up being in a worse position than they were in before it, in order to:

(i) preserve the status quo within H itself; and

(ii) restore the balance of power (i.e. the status quo ante) between H and other hegemons and aspiring hegemons in the region/world, including H‘s political allies –  who may pursue their own self-interest at the expense of H, if H becomes politically unstable, i.e. by annexing territory that H can no longer politically control because its military capability and economy have been weakened.

If the author is right, then the calculus of risk by H is a dynamic that can influence a decision by H to end a war by positively engaging in mediation.

Intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity

‘The destruction of heritage, and prohibition of cultural behaviours are used by certain conflict actors as “shaping operations”, where violence against the “Other” becomes normalised as communities, either incrementally or at once, lose their property, freedoms, and humanity. Culture is a shared set of values, ideas, and behaviours that enable a social group to function and survive. Cultural heritage maintains identity, social cohesion, and a sense of security through intangible practices, including rituals, music, language and skills, and tangible property such as artefacts, archaeology and places. Roosevelt’s four  freedoms link cultural behaviour – to freedom from fear and want. Targeting cultural heritage is an act of power that legitimises one group while diminishing others and is often a precursor for the most offensive form of cultural destruction: genocide.’[viii]

Hence, there is an unspoken connection between:

  1. the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage as a strategy by an invading force in war and occupation;
  2. ethnic cleansing; and
  3. genocide.

The intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an offence against humanity as a whole. ‘[It] seems to have been forgotten that even wars have limits. The so-called “Hague-Law”, which regulates the use of means and methods of warfare so as to mitigate, as much as possible, the “calamities of war”, is the oldest branch of IHL. It’s basic tenet can be summarised in three fundamental maxims, namely: (i) that “the only legitimate object which states should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken military forces of the enemy”; and that therefore, in pursuing this aim, both (ii) “the right of the parties to the conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited”; and (iii) “[t]he civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.” …’ (Saul, Ben & Dapo Akande (2020) The Oxford Guide To International Humanitarian Law, Oxford University Press.(‘ p.235). Article II.2 of the 2003 UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage (17 October 2003) states:

‘For the purposes of this Declaration “intentional destruction” means an act intended to destroy in whole or in part cultural heritage, thus compromising its integrity, in a manner which constitutes a violation of international law or an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, in the latter case in so far as such acts are not already governed by fundamental principles of international law.’

In other words, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

Principles of Humanity

Whether IHL can bring warring P‘s together in an ‘offensive realism’ paradigm depends upon the answer to the following questions:

  • Do universal ethical values exist under IHL as ‘Principles of Humanity’ [‘principles’][ix].
  • What are these principles.
  • In the real world, could these principles be used in mediation as potential building blocks of a peace process, protocol, and agreement – i.e. are they a sufficient basis for starting a ‘difficult’ conversation that can eventually transform attitudes and each P’s Political Doctrine [‘PD’], resulting in the negotiation of a sustainable and enduring Peace Treaty.

The philosophical pillars of universal Principles of Humanity under IHL, are two classical doctrines:

(i) obligations ‘erga omnes’; and

(ii) ‘jus cogens’.

Although it can be said that jus cogens rules consist of rules stipulating erga omnes obligations, it is not axiomatic that erga omnes obligations constitute jus cogens. While there is an overlap between: (i) obligations erga omnes; and (ii) jus cogens rules, the IHL principles and norms that can be derived from the nexus between these doctrines in relation to Cultural Heritage suffer from a lack of scholarly formulation, definition and classification.

Therefore the answer to the first question is yes. However because the formulation of these principles and their philosophical basis under IHL, requires further research[x], the answer to the second question is almost a blank canvass.The answer to the third question depends upon whether these principles align with H’s political interest in the preservation of CH, as destruction of CH is ultimately an act on institutional self-destruction. So, in theory, because, by definition preservation of CG is common ground,  the door is open for a form of Mediation to take place through Cultural Heritage Diplomacy.


There is a tension between the:
(i)      common ground represented by a shared cultural heritage, including a set of ethical, philosophical and religious values/beliefs; and
(ii)      political ambitions and objectives (‘PA’) that drive military strategy in war.

A logical corollary of MPS, is that where  an invading state and an invaded state share a common cultural heritage i.e. CH, that the invader must destroy part of itself in order to achieve its political objective(s), i.e. its PA.

Arguably, Principles of Humanity under IHL are a powerful diplomatic tool in mediating a peace process and agreement, because violation, i.e. the impact of war on CH, may adversely sway public opinion within H and weaken support for the war.

When the political strategy of H is to create a failed state i.e., where it has failed in its primary objective to turn the invaded state into a client state, then the preservation and protection of cultural heritage in the invaded state, is also arguably elevated to the level of being a threat to the national security of any other state in the region (‘SIR’), because there is a risk of a failed state emerging within SIR‘s geo-political sphere of influence.

If the destruction of CH has the potential to politically destabilise H, then it follows that SIR also has a national security interest in the survival of H.  Therein, and counter-intuitively, lies the seed of a principle that can result in the mediation of terms of peace which ensure the survival of both H and the sovereign state invaded by H. If this geo-political interest is recognised by all parties to the conflict and their supporters, that could open the door to a mediated dialogue using cultural heritage as a language of diplomacy, to negotiate a ceasefire and peace agreement. This is where a non-partisan NSA e.g. an NGO, can play an instrumental diplomatic and mediation role.[xi]


Blake, Janet On Developing a New International Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, Art Antiquity & Law, Vol VIII, Issue 4, 381, December 2003. (‘Blake’).

Bowling, Daniel (Editor) & David Hoffman (Editor) (2003), Bringing Peace Into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution, Jossey-Bass. (‘Bowling et al’).

Carstens, Anne-Marie & Elizabeth Varner (2020), Intersections In International Cultural Heritage Law, Oxford University Press. (‘Carstens & Varner’).

Chalcraft, Jasper Into the Contact Zones of Heritage Diplomacy: Local Realities, Transnational Themes and International Expectations, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society (published online 05.01.2021). (‘Chalcraft).

Clack, Timothy & Mark Dunkley (2022) Cultural Heritage in Modern Conflict, Past, Propaganda, Parade, Routledge. (‘Clack & Dunkley’).

Cloke, Kenneth (2019) The Crossroads of Conflict – A Journey Into the Heart of Dispute Resolution,  Goodmedig Press. (‘Cloke’).

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Kim, Jihon (2022) Non-State Actors in the Protection of Cultural Heritage: An Analysis on Their Rights, Obligations, and Roles, Springer-Verlag. (‘Kim’).

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[i] This has a philosophical root in the western liberal theory of cultural property internationalism ‘A related claim is a critique of the nationalist position, namely that cultural heritage is a fluid concept and hence claims to total sovereignty are arbitrary. The position is less that there is no national claim to territorial cultural property, but rather that a balance should be struck between sovereignty and shared access to what is viewed by the cultural property internationalists as a common cultural heritage of humanity. Support for these claims are likewise evident from Article 4 UNESCO 1970, which includes in the definition of “cultural heritage” both “cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange,” and “cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.” These provisions seem to reflect an idea that cultural property can be attributed to a cultural heritage beyond the territory of its origin, and also acknowledges the value in protecting other states’ provision of access to cultural property of foreign origin.’ (Strother, p.358).


[ii] ‘Culture is [also] a key element of operational understanding. Operations of both the British and US militaries in Afghanistan and Iraq taught hard lessons: culture is critical. Culture is a driver and motivator of people. It is also a medium for communication and a means to achieve military effect. It can also shape and define the Information Environment. Culture, as a component of military planning is one of four key human factors that shape the operating environment. Put simply, culture determines how people interpret and orientate themselves to that environment.’ Clack & Dunkley, p.301 – An interview with Captain Mark Waring. These are the words of Captain Waring.

[iii] UNESCO General conference, ‘Reinforcement of UNESCO’s Action for the Protection of Culture and the Promotion of Cultural Pluralism in the Event of Armed Conflict (2 November 2015) UNESCO doc 38/C/49. See also UNESCO General Conference, ‘Strategy for the Reinforcement of UNESCO’s action for the protection of culture and the promotion of Cultural Pluralism in the Event of Armed Conflict’ (24 October 2017) UNESCO doc 39/C/57, para 1.

[iv] Kirsten Schmalenbach, “ideological Warfare Against Cultural Property: UN Strategies and Dilemmas” 19 Max Planck  YB UN L 1.

[v] Carstens & Elizabeth Varner, p.82.

[vi] Note also that ‘fiduciary principles play a prominent role in the international law of occupation. As one leading scholar has observed, the foundational principle upon which the entire law of occupation is based is the principle of inalienability of sovereignty through unilateral action of a foreign power. Accordingly, when a state establishes effective control over foreign territory, its international legal status is conceived to be that of a trustee who exercises only temporary managerial powers until the occupation ends. … An occupant also bears a variety of proscriptive fiduciary duties. It must respect unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country. … Nor may an occupant confiscate private property, [or] destroy property without military necessity. … Moreover the occupant serves only as administrator and usufructuary of public buildings, [and] real estate … belonging to the hostile state, and situated in the occupied country. It must safeguard the capital of these properties, and administer them in accordance with the rules of usufruct, avoiding wasteful or negligent destruction of the capital value … Contrary to the rules of good husbandry. … For centuries, international lawyers and statesmen have endorsed the principle that a state’s sovereign authority is held in trust for the benefit of its people.’ (Criddle, Miller & Sitkoff, pp.356 & 358-9).

[vii] In a proxy war, where a hegemon (‘H‘) is a liberal democracy acting in support of a strategic asset (‘SA’), aggression by SA in breach of IHL not only undermines the integrity of the international rules based order where a Nelsonian blind eye is turned to violation, it can also turn SA into a ‘liability’ which can sway public opinion in H, who demand that support for SA cease.


[viii] Clack & Dunkley, p.301 – An interview with Colonel Rosie Stone. These are the words of Colonel Stone.

[ix] Primary sources include:

  • Hague Convention II, Convention (II) with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land (adopted 29 July 1899, entered into force 4 September 1900):-

‘Preamble …

Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity and requirements of the public conscience.’

  • Additional Protocol 1, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977 (adopted 8 June 1977, entered into force 7 December 1978):-

1(2) – In cases not covered by this Protocol or by other international agreements, civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.’

  • International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – Prosecutor v. Kupreskic et al., (Judgment), Case No. IT-95-16-T, Trial Chamber (14 January 2000).

The following is an extract from Tsagourias & Morrison, pp43 & 44:

‘On the issue of humanity and how it assists in the interpretation of IHL, the Chamber held as follows:

  1. More specifically, recourse might be had to the celebrated Martens Clause which, … Has by now become part of customary international law. True, this Clause may not be taken to mean that the ‘Principles of Humanity’ and the ‘Dictates of Public Conscience’ have been elevated to the rank of independent sources of international law, for this conclusion is belied by international practice. However, this clause enjoins, as a minimum, reference to those principles and dictates any time a rule of international humanitarian law is not sufficiently rigorous or precise: in those instances, the scope and purport of the rule must be defined with reference to those principles and dictates.’
  • Danish Ministry of Defence, Defence Command Denmark, Military Manual on International Law Relevant to Danish Armed Forces in International Operations (2016, updated 2020), chapter 4:-

‘The principle of humanity expresses a fundamental prohibition against the infliction of suffering, injury, or destruction that is not actually necessary for the accomplishment of legitimate military purposes. The principle also implies the basic requirement of humane treatment. … There are three aspects to the principle of humanity. The first aspect concerns the fact that belligerents are limited in their use of means and methods of warfare. … The second aspect of the principle of humanity is the requirement that certain precautions – for instance, in the choice of means and methods – must be taken in connection with the planning and execution of attacks and in the defence against attacks. … The third aspect of the principle concerns a minimum standard for the humane treatment of any person who is held in the custody of the belligerent state.’

  • ‘The key to understanding international jus cogenslies in a much neglected passage of The Doctrine Of Right, where Immanuel Kant discusses the innate right of humanity which all children may assert against their parents as citizens of the world. Drawing on Kant’s account of familial fiduciary relations, our theory of jus cogens posits that states exercise sovereign authority as fiduciaries of the people subject to state power. An immanent feature of this state subject fiduciary relationship is that the state must comply with jus cogens.’ (Criddle & Fox-Decent (2009), pp.353 – 354 (Kant’s Model of Fiduciary Relations).

[x] An additional consideration should be devoted, as well, to unpacking the fiduciary model’s consequences for future litigation to enforce alleged jus cogens violations, including such threshold concerns as standing, sovereign immunity, causes of action, compulsory jurisdiction, forums, and remedies. … Addressing these questions will be essential to determine the specific legal consequences that flow from a breach of jus cogens.’ (Criddle & Fox-Decent (2009)).

[xi] For example in mediating a ceasefire, in order to create a network of humanitarian corridors, i.e. by designating certain areas as ‘Cultural Heritage Safe Zones’, and then linking them up, so as to create a matrix, which in effect brings about a cessation of military operations throughout a conflict zone.