Does equity give teeth to international humanitarian law?

The intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an offence against humanity as a whole. Article II.2 of the 2003 UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage (17 October 2003) states:

‘For the purposes of this Declaration “intentional destruction” means an act intended to destroy in whole or in part cultural heritage, thus compromising its integrity, in a manner which constitutes a violation of international law or an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, in the latter case in so far as such acts are not already governed by fundamental principles of international law.’

In other words, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is an unjustifiable offence to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

While there are no rules establishing any particular consequences, the International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia emphasised in Prosecutor v. Jokić Case IT-01-42/1-S (Judgment) Trial Chamber (18 March 2004), paragraph 46, that in the interests of humanity as a whole:

‘since it is a serious violation of international humanitarian law to attack civilian buildings, it is a crime of even greater seriousness to direct an attack on an especially protected site’.

Therefore, this may be considered as an aggravating factor in determining the length of any sentence in the prosecution of perpetrators.

‘The cultural heritage of a people is not limited to the tangible expressions of art, architecture, religion, poetry, or writing in general but also includes its intangible heritage, which is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity. More generally, cultural heritage includes the expressions of the people’s spirituality, and the body of values which give meaning to life. Its characterization into different kinds (tangible, intangible, spiritual, etc), is simply descriptive and approximate, as one single piece of heritage may assume different meanings for a community, depending on the values it incorporates as perceived by the people concerned. For instance, a building which is considered of outstanding universal value – i.e. of exceptional significance for humanity as a whole – may at the same time have a special spiritual and social (intangible) significance for a given community, for which it greatly transcends the artistic architectural, aesthetic, and economic worth of the property concerned. It is exactly such a special spiritual and social significance which is usually targeted by the perpetrators of acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage. Indeed, when they destroy a piece of cultural heritage, they demolish much more than an outstanding and irreplaceable object. They destroy the special – often spiritual – connection between that object and a human community, a fundamental element of the cultural and social identity of the latter, ultimately upsetting the community as such. The real target of most acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage is therefore, not the heritage in itself but the human communities for which such a heritage is of special significance. In the 16th century, Nicollo Machiavelli wrote that ‘he who becomes a master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always been the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.’ In other words, if you really want to destroy a people, its pride, it self esteem, and its sense of belonging to its own cultural identity, you need to destroy its cultural heritage. This reality has been denounced, much more recently by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), affirming that ‘the loss of heritage during times of conflict can deprive a community of its identity and memory, as well as the physical testimony of its past. Those destroying cultural heritage seek to disrupt the social fabric of societies.’ Intentional destruction of cultural heritage carries a message of terror and helplessness: it destroys part of humanity’s shared memory and collective consciousness: and it renders humanity unable to transmit its values and knowledge to future generations.’ The Oxford Handbook of International Cultural Heritage Law’, pages 76-78.

That is why cultural heritage is entwined with UNESCO’s broader mandate concerning human rights, the rule of law, development, and peace.

‘Most recent cases of international destruction of cultural heritage have in common the circumstances that the target of perpetrators was not a particular community that they wanted to annihilate but rather the international community as a whole, with the exception of those who share their same ideals. As noted by Ana Vrdoljak, it is “cultural and religious diversity which the perpetrators find abhorrent and seek to expunge through such acts.” In all those cases, these crimes against culture assume the characterisation not only of crimes against persons but also and especially of crimes against the international community as a whole.’ The Oxford Handbook Of Cultural Heritage Law (2020), page 90.

The Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention For The Protection of Cultural Property In The Event Of Armed Conflict enumerates five war crimes, known collectively as ‘serious violations’ of the Second Protocol, in respect of which States Parties owe a suite of obligations of suppression through their own or another willing States Party’s criminal law and courts.

In addition to the regime applicable to serious violations, the Second Protocol obliges States Parties to adopt such legislative, administrative, or disciplinary measures as may be necessary to suppress any use of cultural property in violation of the Convention or Second Protocol and any illicit export, other removal, or transfer of ownership of cultural property from occupied territory in violation of the Convention or Second Protocol.

Therefore, can or does equity give ancillary teeth to international humanitarian law?

For my new book, the ‘Mediation of Art and Cultural Heritage Disputes’ I am privately researching ‘The existence and nature of fiduciary duties in relation to dealings with art and antiquities’.

A specific question I am addressing is whether, and to what extent there is a bridge between:

(i)     the existence of fiduciary duties in International Law; and

(ii)     the jurisdiction and powers of the English court to award equitable remedies for breach of fiduciary duty in relation to dealings with art and antiquities.

‘The fiduciary duties that are enshrined in international law parallel private law fiduciary duties in important respects. Under international law, fiduciaries are obligated to carry out their commissions faithfully, manifesting due care and partiality to their beneficiaries’ interests. International law prohibits fiduciaries from abusing their positions of trust and confidence to secure special benefits for themselves at the expense of their beneficiaries. The South West Africa cases affirmed that fiduciaries under international law bear a freestanding legal obligation to submit to international supervision. And the Nauru settlement suggests that the violation of fiduciary duties under international law may support traditional fiduciary remedies, including compensation and restitution.’ The Oxford Handbook of Fiduciary Law 2019, page 362.

Therefore, if an agent of an occupying power expropriates art and antiquities from an occupied state, and the artefacts are subsequently acquired by a museum or private collector, could the recipient be found liable in the English court, for restitution on the grounds of unconscionable receipt?