November 22, 2016

Targeting History and Memory: A new website explores the prosecution of crimes against cultural and religious property


A new website explores the prosecution of crimes 
against cultural and religious property by the 
International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
By: Helen Walasek

A new resource-rich website exploring the prosecution of crimes against cultural heritage during conflict has just been launched. Targeting History and Memory comprehensively documents for the first time how the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) investigated, reconstructed and prosecuted the intentional destruction of cultural, historical and religious property committed during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession of the 1990s. Targeting History and Memory was produced by SENSE Centre for Transitional Justice, which in its previous incarnation as SENSE News Agency has offered comprehensive and balanced coverage of the work of the ICTY since 1998.

Gjakova Hadum Quran School, Kosovo, 1999
The almost overwhelming number of deliberate attacks on cultural and religious property in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and finally, Kosovo, amounted to the greatest destruction of cultural heritage seen in Europe since World War Two. The devastation – one of the defining features of the conflicts – took place chiefly during violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing, campaigns waged against civilians as an integral part of attempts to carve out ethnically homogenous territories, hoping to obliterate the material evidence of a previous diversity. The damage to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural inheritance was worst, particularly to its Ottoman and Islamic heritage.  

The vast majority of attacks were premeditated, systematic, and took place far from the frontlines. Rarely taking place in isolation, they were almost always accompanied by multiple atrocities and human rights abuses against the groups being targeted for expulsion – a scenario being horrifically enacted today, most visibly in Syria and Iraq.

With its emphasis on justice for victims of human rights abuses and calling to account those who committed, were responsible for, or allowed such abuses to take place, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has played a seminal role in the development of international human rights law – including that relating to cultural heritage. 

The Tribunal demonstrated how closely protection of cultural and religious property is tied up with peoples’ rights to enjoyment of their cultural heritage and how intimately cultural heritage and identity are linked. In case after case it showed how the destruction of structures which symbolised a group’s identity was a manifestation of persecution and crimes against humanity. Yet these prosecutions and their importance of the ICTY’s case law are relatively little known to those in the fields of art crime and heritage protection.

With the ICTY winding down and only the trial of Ratko Mladić to complete before the court closes for good in December 2017, SENSE saw the urgency of ensuring that the Tribunal’s legacy was made permanently and publicly accessible. As SENSE Centre for Transitional Justice it has since produced Srebrenica: Genocide in Eight Acts and Storm in The Hague detailing the controversies raised by the ICTY trials for war crimes committed during Operation Storm in Croatia. Targeting History and Memory, SENSE’s third online narrative, was recently presented in Sarajevo and Zagreb, with an event in Belgrade to follow.

Dubrovnik Old City shelling, 1991
Among the iconic images of attacks on heritage during the Yugoslav conflicts were the 1991 bombardment of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik in Croatia by Yugoslav forces, Sarajevo’s National Library erupting in flames after a barrage of incendiary shells from Bosnian Serb artillery in 1992, and the collapse of the sixteenth century Ottoman Old Bridge at Mostar following persistent shelling by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993.  Shocking as these were, it was in towns and villages across Bosnia-Herzegovina in wide swathes of ethnically-cleansed countryside where, unrecorded by the media, destruction was worst. Yet after the intentional cultural destruction of the 1992–1995 Bosnian War, more was to follow during the 1998–1999 Kosovo War. All these cases are explored on the website.

With its easy access to key texts, reports and documents like evidence exhibits and a comprehensive bibliography (much of it downloadable), and through its rich array of audio-visual material, including archival photos, videos of ICTY trial testimonies and documentary films, Targeting History and Memory must now be the best source of information on the ICTY’s prosecutions of crimes against cultural property. Apart from the plethora of background material, the website has two standout features.

For while celebrating ICTY’s achievements, Targeting History and Memory also offers a critical assessment, uncovering the difficulties in prosecuting crimes against cultural heritage during conflict, , not just at the Tribunal, but at all. The prevailing mindsets of those working in the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), few of whom (or more likely, none) probably had any prior interest or knowledge of prosecuting cultural property crimes are revealed in the videos that introduce each section. It also raises yet again the vexed question of ‘military necessity’ relating to cultural property crimes (though apparently not of proportionality) and a brief glimpse of ICTY prosecutors’ discussions on the subject.

Sarajevo National Library, copyright ICTY
The first video, in particular, with its interviews with current and former ICTY prosecutors reveal their thinking behind prosecutions involving destruction of cultural and religious property. They offer some eye-opening excuses and justifications for removing important attacks from indictments such as the still inexplicable removal of the shelling of the National Library from the indictments against Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, surely one of the most documented incidents of the Siege of Sarajevo. Notably, the bombardment was listed on indictments not as an attack on a cultural monument, but as a ‘shelling incident’.

Mostar Old Bridge, 8 November 1993
Another interview reveals how close the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar – undoubtedly the paradigm for the deliberate attacks on cultural heritage during all the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia – came to not being included at all in the indictments against the military and political leaders of the secessionist Bosnian Croats attempting to create an ethnically homogenous para-state of Herceg-Bosna (Prlić et al). The insertion of the Old Bridge into a clause on the indictments relating to the destruction or wilful damage to institutions ‘dedicated to religion or education’ now seems to have been intentional rather than mistaken. This decision was to seriously hamstring the judges in reaching a guilty verdict for the destruction of the Old Bridge, although they eventually did – albeit with a dissenting opinion from the president of the trial chamber.

Unprosecuted destruction
Jajce-Orthodox Church
The second standout is the website’s Unprosecuted section which outlines in depressing detail the limitations of international justice for prosecuting crimes against cultural property during conflict. While prosecutions were made (and convictions achieved) for the bombardment of Dubrovnik, there have been none for other major attacks on cultural property made during the 1991–1995 Croatian War such as the assaults on numerous historic monuments in Vukovar with its many Baroque buildings, nor in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, for the destruction of all types of cultural property at the ancient city of Jajce, from mosques and historic Muslim neighbourhoods to Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Ahmici Mosque, Bosnia 1993

And the ICTY has yet to explain why all fifteen mosques totally and intentionally destroyed in Banja Luka appeared on its 1995 joint indictment in of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, but were completely removed from final indictments. Thus, no-one will have been prosecuted at all for the destruction of the sixteen-century Ferhadija Mosque which reopened in 2016, 23 years after it was blown up in May 1993.


                                                           ENDS

Targeting History and Memory: The ICTY and the investigation, reconstruction and prosecution of crimes against cultural and religious heritage
http://heritage.sense-agency.com/


The author of this blog post advised on and wrote the introduction to Targeting History and Memory.

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