Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Destruction of libraries and archives as a war crime: article from Libraries and Culture

The citation for the article is as follows:

Zgonjanin, Sanja. "The Prosecution of War Crimes for the Destruction of Libraries and Archives during Times of Armed Conflict." Libraries and Culture 40.2 (2005): 128-144.

The article is available electronically through Project Muse for those of the readers who may have access that way.

This article caught my eye because it deals with libraries. However, as I began to read, it got more interesting. It begins by definining the purpose of destrying cultural property as "to erase ethnic, religious, and cultural memories and therefore undermine or eliminate groups' identities and existence" (128). The article then goes on to describe what few laws exist internationally to protect libraries and archives, which it turns out are few and usually included under broader conventions like the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Because of this, war crime indictments for the destruction of a library are not usually a separate count, and thus harder to prosecute.

The second part of the article provides three examples of library and archive destruction and how they were prosecuted. The first event discussed is the loss of The Oriental Library in Shanghai. This crime was prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, a tribunal established by the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 to prosecute Japanese war crimes. However, the destruction of the library was not defined as a specific indictment along with other charges of cultural property destruction. As a result, reparation costs were never specified, and the library was never restored. Among the library's loses, "the library subscribed to more than 700 periodicals and had more than 600,000 volumes in various languages and a significant number of rare book collections. Many invaluable first editions from the Sung Dynasty as well as one of the most important collections in China--the Yen Feng Lau classics collection--were lost" (131). The second event discussed is the destruction of the Naples State Archives by German soldiers on September 30, 1943. In this case, a complete list of lost material was saved, and the library was able to reconstruct its holdings, but this was a long and painstaking process. As for the prosecution of the crime, "as in the IMTFE [International Military Tribunal for the Far East] charter, the destruction of cultural property fell under war crimes as a violation of the laws or customs of war" (134). It fell to the International Military Tribunal to prosecute the crimes of the Axis after World War II. The third event discussed in the article is the destruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo during a bombing on August 25-26, 1992. Of note, "it is ironic that the National and University Library of Sarajevo, identified as an enemy target allegedly by Bosnian Serb forces, contained the history and cultural heritage of all the peoples who lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and others. Destroying one's one cultural heritage because it is part of the cultural pluralism that existed on that territory for centuries seemed to be cultural suicide and at the same time exposed the intricate nature of culture" (136-137). This one fell to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was established by the UN on May 25, 1993. Unfortunately, the tribunal lacked the ability to compensate victims for destroyed cultural property in spite of provisions to deal with stolen and taken property. However, the prosecution established a prima facie case to add provisions to the charter so crimes against cultural properties could be prosecuted. "The specific inclusion of the cultural property destruction in the counts of an indictment was a step in the right direction for international criminal law," according to the article (138). However, plea bargaining meant the charge regarding the library was practically disregarded, and in spite of donations of books and materials to rebuild, a dispute over who owns the building means the library remains in ruins.

The third part of the article discusses the situation with the National Library and Archives in Baghdad in April 2004. While the damage seems to be done by looters, the article criticizes the neglect of the United States forces in protecting such valuable cultural sites while they did protect areas like the Ministry of Oil, the Palestine Hotel, the airport and other strategic places.

Overall, the article illustrates how the justice systems have failed to prosecute and punish those responsible for the destruction of cultural properties like libraries and archives, often through lack of insight or neglect. Sadly, this pattern is likely to continue unless better methods of effective and speedy prosecution and put into place.

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