A cultural heritage is a group of objects, such as artworks, archaeological sites, and historical buildings, that are important to mankind. These can be a source of social stability or a financial asset. However, they can also be a source of controversy. Intentional destruction of cultural heritage has occurred throughout history. Often, such destruction was done with a political motivation. In addition, cultural destruction has been associated with genocide and human rights violations. In these situations, a variety of factors are at play, from the desire to preserve the identity of an indigenous population to the intention to annihilate all trace of a former system.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a variety of mass atrocities were committed in European colonial contexts, including cultural genocide. In most cases, the destruction of cultural heritage and its associated atrocities went hand in hand with other atrocities, such as executions and socially motivated persecutions.
During the early Stalin years in the Soviet Union, art was treated as a commodity, and a new phase of French cultural policy was introduced. The rethinking of cultural policy was based on a new understanding that nationalization of cultural wealth meant that a nation had an obligation to protect its own cultural heritage.
The destruction of cultural artifacts was particularly a concern in the context of ethnic conflict. The sacral architecture of an enemy ethnic group was a popular target. In fact, the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution each targeted a specific aspect of cultural identity. During the French Revolution, works of art from that period were seen as symbols of despotism.
In the late nineteenth century, a similar phenomenon was noted in China and Africa. In the Middle East, intentional destruction of cultural heritage became a symptom of the ongoing conflicts. In both instances, the goal was to destroy evidence of a deposed system.
While the UNESCO Declaration did not make a direct reference to this type of destruction, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted on 16 December 1966, did. The Declaration’s preamble mentioned the spread of culture, as well as the protection of cultural property. The UNDROIT Convention, which was signed on 29 September 2002, includes a reference to the protection of cultural diversity.
The 1970 UNESCO Convention defines cultural heritage as cultural property that is owned by states. It lists eleven types of cultural objects, ranging from antiquities older than one hundred years to archival material. It provides a legal framework for states to claim exclusive ownership of their national cultural heritage, but does not specify who is entitled to use such property. Similarly, the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, identifies inalienability of the cultural property of a tribal or ethnic group.
A number of intergovernmental organizations have been set up to study the preservation of cultural property. Many governments and benefactors are involved in cultural heritage preservation programs. In addition, a number of nongovernmental organizations have established conservation, preservation, and revitalization initiatives.