Cultural heritage is the legacy of a group’s values, traditions and art inherited from the past. It is a vital expression of the culture that makes up unique communities and its loss during conflict or disaster can be catastrophic.
It is also important for the future of society because it reflects human progress, creativity and diversity. For this reason, it is crucial to safeguard and promote it.
There are two main types of cultural heritage: tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage includes buildings, monuments and other structures of cultural interest as well as works of art. Intangible heritage, on the other hand, is comprised of cultural activities, customs and practices, language, religious beliefs, and social and economic traditions, among others.
Protecting Cultural Heritage During Armed Conflicts
In our own times, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage has been part of systematic campaigns by some state and non-state actors to destroy a group’s history and its values. This is an attack on a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’s right to exist and is a serious breach of the International Human Rights Law and the Responsibility to Protect.
The destruction of cultural heritage has often been linked to acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes and has been the subject of a number of international cases. This is why UNESCO, UN member states and the global community are actively exploring ways to halt the destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts.
According to UNESCO, a cultural heritage site is a structure, building or object that is important for the history of a country and whose preservation is essential for the maintenance of cultural identity and continuity. It is a tangible and intangible resource that can be found throughout the world.
There are various criteria for determining whether an item is considered a cultural heritage or not. Some examples include a clear example of a tradition or culture, a landscape or architectural ensemble that illustrates some stage in human history, an exceptional masterpiece created by the intellect of man, a piece of music or a work of art that is deemed to be of outstanding universal value.
Some cultural heritage items may be valuable in monetary terms, and some are even irreplaceable. Therefore, economic considerations are a key aspect of the decision-making process when considering the need to preserve cultural heritage.
UNESCO has recognized many different categories of cultural heritage that fall into its scope, such as the Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The Intangible Cultural Heritage List focuses on local traditions, practices, representations, expressions and skills of communities around the world.
These cultural elements can include traditions related to the earth, water, air, food, medicine, and technology. They are also connected to religion and to the knowledge, skills and techniques that have been passed down from previous generations.
UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List is designed to protect the traditions that are most threatened by a changing world. The list now covers 678 elements from 140 countries, ranging from baguette to narrative pottery and bell-shaped garments. It is the latest in a long line of efforts by UNESCO and its member states to safeguard the world’s cultural heritage.