Commonwealth countries have been encouraged to ratify and implement the 1954 Hague Convention, which protects cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.
Of 53 Commonwealth member countries, 20 have ratified the Convention, which commits countries to take measures to safeguard immovable and movable cultural property - such as buildings, monuments, artefacts and artwork - when conflict strikes.
High commissioners, historians and academics tackled the issue at an event co-hosted by the Commonwealth and the British Red Cross to mark the World Day for International Justice. They also discussed strategies and tools to address illicit trafficking in cultural property and the impacts of natural disasters.
Opening the discussions, Deputy Secretary-General Dr Arjoon Suddhoo said: “The Commonwealth is ready to help all of its member countries in fully implementing The 1954 Hague Convention and its protocols at the national level.
“Implementing international humanitarian law is about prevention and preparedness, including when dealing with cultural heritage.”
Peter Stone, the chair of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield, also addressed the meeting, saying: “To remain relevant the Commonwealth must be seen to be contributing to international priorities and agendas.
“I urge the Commonwealth countries to ratify and implement The 1954 Hague Convention. Doing so will strengthen protection of cultural property and heritage which is essential for community coherence and peacebuilding.”
Speakers stressed that protecting cultural heritage safeguards memory, a sense of place and shared history for a community. Therefore, they recommended member countries to ratify legal instruments, rely on international expertise, engage in peer-to-peer learning and participate in regional gatherings.
Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, spoke about how a natural disaster can annihilate a country’s cultural assets at once.
She said: “We must pay attention to the possibility of cross border displacement as a result of climate change.
“So when the movement happens, it should be based on the important principles of not just humanity and dignity but of respect for cultural heritage.
“As one of the fears in the mind of the Pacific communities facing the possibility of displacement is that they will their culture, way of life and language.”
During the event, delegates built a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities involved in the protection of cultural heritage. They also learned about tools and support made available by international agencies, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Blue Shield, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Lt. Col. Tim Pubrick of the British Army highlighted the obligations of states party to the 1954 Hague Convention concerning their armed forces in implementing the Convention and its protocols.
In her closing remarks, Emma Squire, Director of Arts, Heritage and Tourism for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: “There were some sobering moments, as we reflected on the impact of climate change on small island states in the Pacific, and guardians of cultural heritage who have lost their lives in Syria.
“But also uplifting moments with examples of successful protection of cultural property and the many initiatives underway to protect cultural property going forward.”