Cultural heritage includes anything that represents a society’s past. This can be ancient archaeological sites, historical buildings, collections of antiquities, artwork, artifacts, archives, and even the lifeways of contemporary communities. This type of heritage can be threatened by a number of factors, from benign neglect to major natural disasters.
Political and economic factors also contribute to the destruction of cultural heritage. For example, armed conflict and social persecution are major threats to cultural heritage. In war zones, religious minorities may be targeted in particular. In addition to losing their religious identity, they could find themselves losing their education. In a religiously diverse society, cultural heritage can serve as an example of what happens to nonconforming people and their beliefs when the government attempts to destroy them.
Managing cultural heritage requires a careful balance between competing interests, primarily the preservation of the cultural objects that are part of an area’s heritage. In practice, cultural objects are classified according to their social function and their heritage value. Objects with a high symbolic value are most likely to be protected as cultural heritage. Artefacts that were produced for the market are unlikely to qualify as heritage; they must be tangible symbols of a lost family’s culture.
Cultural heritage is also protected by international law. The UN has adopted Resolution 33/20 on cultural rights and cultural heritage. The document is part of the UN Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CETS No. 199). This resolution calls on all countries to increase their efforts to combat the illegal trafficking and organized looting of cultural objects and property. It also calls on national governments to take actions to ensure the restoration of stolen cultural objects.
The traditional ownership concepts and the conventional art trade regime have a weak foundation when it comes to resolving title issues involving cultural objects. Conventions on the 1970 UNESCO Convention were intended to protect cultural objects and control the flow of art between states. They do not provide adequate protection when competing claims arise. Meanwhile, the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention was meant to harmonize private law, but market states have not yet ratified the agreement. This fragmented framework leaves room for different implementations.
International human rights law also addresses cultural heritage issues, and identifies the rights of indigenous peoples to access lost cultural objects. In some instances, human rights can act as bridges between private and public law. For example, UNDRIP addresses indigenous peoples’ cultural objects that have been destroyed. In other cases, the human right to property can protect a dispossessed private former owner’s cultural property.
Despite the importance of cultural heritage, there is still a lack of legal clarity on who owns a specific piece. UNESCO’s Draft of Principles on Cultural Objects in Connection With the Second World War published in 2009 relies on a traditional intergovernmental model of ownership. For example, in a war zone, cultural objects belonging to one country must be claimed by the other nation.