How the Rules of War Work

Cultural Property

Cultural property emblem

It is interesting that the rules devised to protect human beings as much as possible from the ravages of war have also seen fit to address the preservation of cultures. The most obvious link between an individual and a culture is that both are irreplaceable. That humanitarian law specifically protects cultural property indicates the essential role of cultural traditions, of history, in the welfare of individuals and of society as a whole:

...damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world... (Hague Convention, 1954)

Personal property is protected throughout the Hague and Geneva Conventions, but cultural property has an entire document dedicated to its welfare. While the protection of cultural property is addressed in the laws of the 1899 and 1907 Hague Peace Conferences, it was deemed necessary to return to the issue after World War II. In the resulting 1954 treaty, the physical objects that symbolize the culture of a people are protected from seizure and destruction much as hospitals and religious buildings are protected in previous conventions. Cultural property includes historical or architectural monuments, works of art and science, archaeological sites, books and manuscripts, and any building that houses or displays any of these cultural pieces, such as a museum or library.


The protection of cultural property is not solely the obligation of the armed forces. In peacetime, the state is supposed to take measures to ensure the safety of these objects in case of an armed conflict. Once a war breaks out, the responsibility for their protection is shared by the state and the military and, if the state is occupied, by the occupying military as well. An armed force, whether of the state or of the occupying power, is not supposed to use any piece of cultural heritage for military purposes, or for any purpose that could possibly expose it to danger.

Much like the use of the Red Cross emblem to identify a hospital, the 1954 Hague Convention established an emblem to signify cultural property (see right). Three of the symbols arranged in a triangle (two above, one below) indicates protected cultural property. One symbol alone identifies a person employed in the protection of cultural property.

Occupying forces must not export cultural property from an occupied territory, and these items are not allowed to be offered or demanded as reparations at the close of a war.

As of April 2002, 103 nations had signed this agreement.