‘Cultural heritage’ is a term used to describe tangible and intangible heritage assets. Its definition can vary but it includes such things as art, music, architecture, books, and films. It is something that has been inherited by past generations, but not everything that was inherited is a cultural heritage. There are certain criteria for determining whether a piece of culture is a heritage, including a continuing connection with a society and the values it represents. A state has an obligation to preserve and protect these objects and to take measures to make them accessible to the public.
A number of international partners are helping Ukrainians with their efforts to protect their cultural heritage. However, they must move beyond a narrow definition of cultural heritage. They must take a people-centered approach to protecting their culture, and they must acknowledge that some of the most important cultural objects are owned by private individuals. Moreover, they must also consider the wider public interest. If artefacts are destroyed or removed without permission, they could be seen as stolen property.
The legal framework for the trade of art is based on the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It was created to counter illicit export and import of cultural objects, as well as to promote conservation of cultural property. The UNESCO Convention has not yet been ratified by market states. It is unclear whether it will resolve issues related to title to cultural objects. In the meantime, the proliferation of soft law instruments indicates that a need for a new set of standards is being felt.
The 1970 UNESCO Convention defines cultural objects as “property of mankind.” Despite this, it does not solve issues related to title to cultural objects. Traditional ownership concepts are not very useful for resolving such problems, and regular ownership law is not suitable for solving them. Fortunately, the 1970 UNESCO Convention sets out cooperative solutions, such as temporary exchanges of objects, loans, and joint activities of research.
As part of its advocacy for the preservation of cultural objects, PAUSE (Paris Association for the Protection of Unpublished Sources of Science, Literature and Art) is organizing a public event on cultural heritage in conflict zones on September 26, 2022. It will provide an opportunity to discuss the protection of scientific heritage, artistic heritage in conflict zones, and reconciliation. During the event, participants will learn more about what it means to preserve cultural objects in these areas, and the ways in which the French government and international partners are working together to protect the arts in Ukraine.
One of the blind spots in the art trade regime is the lack of clear entitlement of communities to cultural objects that have been lost or damaged. This is particularly true of losses that occurred prior to the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. There are also other areas in which courts may be reluctant to recognize violations of human rights relating to the loss or destruction of cultural objects.