Traditional concepts of ownership and the conventional regime of art trade do not lend themselves well to the resolution of title issues involving contested cultural objects. The 1970 UNESCO Convention, for instance, was designed to govern the movement of cultural objects, not to answer competing claims. The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention was meant to harmonize private law, but it has not been ratified in many market states. The result is a fragmented framework of legal protection that leaves room for different interpretations.
As a result, much of our cultural heritage is at risk of theft or destruction. Artworks and manuscripts are often taken from their original contexts, where they can carry monetary value, destroying local knowledge and destroying cultural identities. In addition, they are the targets of middlemen, dealers, and collectors.
Conventions governing the protection of cultural objects are not universal. Countries must consider a number of factors before determining their legal status, including the potential dangers to the objects. Cultural objects are the property of mankind, and they deserve to be protected as such. Consequently, they should be respected in peace and war.
Unfortunately, saving lives often takes precedence over protecting cultural heritage. The loss of culture is arguably as catastrophic as the loss of a life. The question is, how do we protect the heritage we have and preserve it? One way is to think about cultural heritage as a collective creative enterprise. Nevertheless, individuals play a central role in the creation of cultural heritage. Depriving someone of the means to create their own heritage, then, can be damaging to their well-being.
While nationalities serve as a means to determine responsibilities, it is important to remember that cultural heritage is a common good of mankind. As such, every country has an obligation to protect and promote its cultural objects, which can be shared with other nations. In addition to protecting cultural objects, states should take steps to make them accessible to all.
The UNDROIT Convention mentions cultural heritage in the preamble. It also mentions cultural exchanges and dissemination, along with the protection of cultural diversity. In 2001, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. This document was part of the UNESCO Doc. 31C/Res. Further, the UNDROIT Convention aims to ensure that the protection of cultural heritage is an integral part of international law.
The concept of cultural heritage can be used to protect indigenous cultures and peoples from invasion and exploitation. In addition, it can be used to protect cultural heritage in the context of genocide. Several UN documents have explicitly referred to the “primary responsibility” of states. This can be a useful tool to increase international political support and create a more inclusive conversation.
The SUCHO project is an initiative of cultural heritage specialists that aims to identify cultural heritage sites and digital content in Ukraine. The group uses a combination of technologies to crawl the web and identify at-risk sites. The team includes academics from international universities and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. The team would welcome any help from individuals or institutions. You can get involved by visiting the SUCHO website.