War Crimes: ISIS and Islamic Antiquities

by Michelle Bovée

As ISIS desecrates ancient and culturally invaluable sites, French President François Hollande and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova team up to condemn these actions as war crimes.


On Wednesday March 18th, French President François Hollande stood in the Louvre’s Mesopotamian gallery with Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, to request a mission be sent to Baghdad to assess the damage wrought on national heritage by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was, naturally, a coincidence that this announcement came as news broke of the devastating attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, in which armed gunmen killed 19 people and wounded 22 others. The request could not have come in a more timely, or dramatic, fashion.

ISIS has been responsible for the demolition and pillaging of numerous archaeological sites across Iraq and Syria, including the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and the 2,000-year-old UNESCO world heritage site, Hatra.  These sites contained shrines and statues to “false idols,” according to ISIS, which had to be destroyed—after the gold and silver within the cities had been taken, of course. ISIS even released a five-minute video of men taking sledgehammers and power tools to ancient Mesopotamian sculptures in Iraq’s Mosul Museum, though it was later demonstrated that some (not all) of the fragmented statues were fakes.

Hollande’s speech at the Louvre was a response to these horrible acts, a call to arms to defend the region’s cultural heritage and prevent further destruction. He asked that the Louvre not only send a team to assess the damage done so far, but train Iraqi archaeologists and work to combat the trafficking of cultural artifacts across Syria and Iraq. With the weight of Bokova and UNESCO behind him, Hollande went a step further and declared the deliberate destruction of these heritage items a war crime, drawing on the UN 1954 Hague Convention, which prohibits the use of monuments and other sites for military purposes and misappropriating cultural property.

Compared to some of the other atrocities ISIS has perpetrated over the last year—and even the last few months—the destruction of cultural heritage seems to pale in comparison. How can the demolition of a thousand-year-old piece of clay compare with the recruiting of over 400 Syrian children, beheading, or suicide bombing? ISIS’ decision to attack these sites is no accident, though: it is a deliberate act of war, and should be treated as such, even if it is not equal in magnitude to the human toll ISIS has wrought. Like much of ISIS’ actions, desecrating the region’s cultural heritage is expressive, meant to send a message to all those who would oppose the group’s militant philosophy; this destruction is an attack on history and identity. Enforcing the UN 1954 Hague Convention will certainly be difficult, as non-state actors have little regard for international law, but that is no reason not to try. Hollande and Bokova took a step forward by condemning the acts as war crimes, and by offering to train Iraqi historians and archaeologists so that the skills are not lost, but they will need partners and more public attention in order to succeed.

Photo: Adrien Sifre/Flickr

Michelle Bovée is an Account Executive at a business development firm in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.