The Library During Times of Armed Conflict:
A look at Iraq’s National Library and Archives
- International law and cultural property:
4a. Brief background:
Historically, the destruction of libraries and archives during times of war has not been effectively prosecuted. Usually, such crimes fall within a general charge for destruction of property, or destruction of cultural property. Even more problematic, there are not very strong laws criminalizing the destruction of libraries and archives. UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program is one attempt to protect these places, but it does not criminalize their destruction. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is really the only weighty legal device which protects libraries and archives in times of war. Still, it is not well enforced. (Zgonjanin, 2005)
The 1992 destruction of the National and Academic Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, mentioned at the beginning of this paper, marks one of the only times in modern history that war criminals were specifically charged with the destruction of cultural property. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has indicted several people for the cultural destruction that took place during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This was extremely important because it brought attention to the weakness of the 1954 Hague Convention. In 1999, the Hague Convention was expanded to include measures and funding for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict. The expansion also limited military activity to places of military necessity, and imposed individual criminal responsibility for those in any violation. (Zgonjanin, 2005)
4b. INLA and the U.S.:
As mentioned previously, many hold the U.S. responsible for the burning and looting of INLA and other cultural institutions during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The lack of action shows a clear disregard for the cultural significance of these places to both Iraq and the rest of the world. At best, this disregard can be interpreted as ignorance. At worst, it is a failure to recognize one nation’s culture to be as important as another. UNESCO’s directives point out that every culture contributes to a larger human culture that needs to be protected and shared (Moustafa, 2014). While the Bush administration did not actively destroy places such as INLA during the U.S. occupation, it did not seek to protect them either. By ignoring the destruction of Iraq’s cultural property, the U.S. ignored the destruction of global culture as well. It appears that in times of war, people have great difficulty recognizing the importance of other cultures. Opposing cultures are “othered” and subsequently disregarded or purposefully destroyed.
As Zgonjanin (2005) points out, this is one of the main reasons libraries and archives are targeted during times of war. And without better legal protection, these places will continue to be targeted. Although it is popular international opinion that the U.S. is responsible for the cultural losses suffered by Iraq, no one has made any move to bring charges against the nation. Zgonjanin (2005) argues that if punishment for these crimes continues to be inconsistent, there will be no deterrent for further destruction of libraries and archives in the future.
The recent experiences of INLA demonstrate how thoroughly libraries and other cultural institutions reflect the political and social changes happening around them. In times of war, these effects can be disastrous. As a direct result of the political and social schisms within Iraq, as well as the indifference of occupying forces, a great deal of the library’s content was destroyed. Efforts to rebuild demonstrate how the library’s policies can, in turn, affect the political and social climate of its community for the good.
Still, there is a greater issue regarding the treatment of libraries in times of war–particularly by enemies and occupying forces. While the international reaction to the cultural destruction in Iraq may mark a shift in these attitudes, more is needed. Faster reaction time and stronger legal instruments are necessary to ensure the convictions for crimes concerning the destruction of cultural property. Otherwise, destruction of libraries and other cultural institutions during times of armed conflict is likely to continue.
*This topic to be continued next Topical Tuesday.
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