War on Symbols: Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict

Amalie Sode Lund

Student thesis: Master thesis


The protection of cultural heritage is based on international agreements and accordance between sovereign states. UNESCO’s Convention for Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is the most important international instrument to protect cultural heritage in the event of war. The Convention represents a specific perception of world order where sovereign states are the absolute actors in international relations and in wars. By outlining a paradigm shift in warfare, obtained by a changing world order, I identify how international cultural heritage and its protection are challenged today by an increasing number non-state actors and their intentional destruction of cultural heritage. The Clausewitzian view of war, as conflict between sovereign states, has been predominant in the 20th century. This view has thus guided the international preventive and regulatory means of war conduct, including protection of cultural heritage. However the interstate wars that dominated the 20th century have recently been partly replaced by intrastate wars where non-state actors, such as Islamic State, play a significant role. This change, dubbed New Wars, reflects a paradigm shift in warfare where methods, actors and goals have changed. Contemporary conflicts are increasingly fragmented, and often characterized by ethnic tensions, inequality and corruption, with causes and consequences at local and global scale. Often, these conflicts take place in weak or failed states as attempts to gain authority and legitimacy. Often, identity politics are a driving mechanism is these conflicts and cultural heritage becomes a target. The identity aspect in New Wars often manifests itself in the destruction of symbolic objects that represent a specific ethnic group. The destruction of specific objects thus threatens specific cultures questioning the legitimacy of their identity. New non-state actors, such as Islamic State, use intentional destruction of cultural heritage as a means of domination and provocation. In New Wars cultural heritage is threatened and cultural property is destroyed as part of a political or religious agenda. New Wars thus challenge the foundation of UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the idea of universal cultural heritage with non-state actors, new methods and new goals.

EducationsMA in International Business Communication (Intercultural Marketing), (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages89
SupervisorsKristian Lau Nielsen