Museums and Missiles: Russia’s Attack on Ukrainian Heritage Highlights the Need to Protect Cultural Rights

by | Nov 23, 2023

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About Hannah Pell

Hannah Pell is a graduating senior in the School of International Service at American University. Her research interests include cultural rights, reproductive justice, and the history of hip hop.

Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, they have bombed, defaced, and looted sites of cultural significance to the Ukrainian people. UNESCO recently confirmed that 295 sites have been damaged, and estimates that it will cost $6.9 billion to rebuild the nation’s cultural sector. These targeted attacks not only violate Ukrainians’ cultural rights, but constitute a war crime under international law.

Nearly sixty years ago, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) asserted that everyone has the right to take part in “cultural life,” echoing Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over time, this has been supplemented by other instruments including the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires states to protect cultural property in times of war, and the Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter calls on states to safeguard the performing arts and other practices which provide communities with a “sense of identity and continuity.” However, during his state address, Russia’s president denied that Ukraine exists as a nation, insisting that its people lack their own history and culture. Russian forces have subsequently attempted to realise these claims by destroying the very places where Ukrainians sang, danced, and celebrated their shared history.

Days after Ukraine came under attack, Russian forces bombed the Ivankiv History Museum, which housed 25 works by the acclaimed artist Maria Prymachenko. The aerial assault soon moved to Mariupol, where Russian missiles struck the Donetsk drama theater, killing over a dozen civilians. Alongside bombed out buildings and broken glass, Russian soldiers left a trail of stolen artefacts. More than 2,000 artworks were taken from museums in Mariupol, including ancient icons and treasured paintings. Eight months later, soldiers pillaged Kherson, seizing artefacts from the city’s cathedral, national archive, and two museums. Throughout these attacks, cultural officials have sought to protect Ukrainians’ cultural heritage, partnering with private companies and Polish organisations to evacuate collections from conflict zones. Even so, it remains unclear how many stolen items have been irrevocably lost or damaged. The destruction of Ukrainians’ heritage threatens to erase tangible pieces of their history, and ultimately their identity as a people. Cultural sites facilitate the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, connecting people to their past as they envision their future. By impeding this process, Russian forces have violated another set of rights that fall under Articles 1 and 13 of the ICESCR.

The freedom to participate in cultural life is critical to enjoying other human rights, from education to self-determination. After the ICESCR went into effect, its committee explained that the right to education is “intrinsically linked” to cultural protection. Communities learn about themselves through their culture, and they use education to pass down languages, customs, and other traditions. Although Ukrainians are resisting cultural erasure and continue to produce new works of art and literature, the invasion has prevented them from accessing key sites of historical and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, Article 1(1) of the ICESCR states that “all peoples” should be able to pursue their “cultural development” by virtue of their right to self-determination. When the war began, many officials referenced this section of the Covenant, including the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights. Xanthaki asserted that Russia violated Ukrainians’ right to self-determination by refusing to recognise their cultural identity and using that denial to justify the invasion.

Russia’s attack on Ukrainian culture not only breaches human rights law, but amounts to a war crime in its own right. The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, prohibits the “destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity.” Although Russia is not party to the Rome Statute, the Council of Europe and the United States have argued that senior officials should be nonetheless prosecuted via special tribunal. Evidence from Ukraine’s cultural sites could thus play a pivotal role in future trials. Since Ukrainian forces have reclaimed more territory, international NGOs have been able to visit damaged sites that were previously only visible via satellite. Their findings confirm that Russia has continued to wantonly destroy Ukrainians’ cultural heritage. Holding these perpetrators accountable sends an important message that Ukraine’s cultural identity is valuable and deserving of protection, while also highlighting that the defense of cultural rights in war remains a critical issue for the international human rights community.

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