The United Nations recognizes cultural cleansing as a specific “risk factor” for impending genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
In addition to being a harbinger of atrocities to come, it is also an atrocity crime in itself. The intentional destruction of cultural property, absent military necessity, has long been explicitly banned by international treaties, as well as customary international law.
While the term “cultural cleansing” is modern, the practice itself is as ancient as the sites and antiquities targeted. Throughout history marauding armies have sought to eradicate their enemies and all they hold sacred. Infamous examples include the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Croat destruction of the Mostar Bridge, and even the Roman sack of Carthage.
While cultural cleansing is separate from cultural racketeering — the organized looting and trafficking of art and antiquities — it often occurs alongside it. As a result, during armed conflict, heritage is doubly threatened. It is thus imperative that the international community take immediate steps to better understand these crimes against culture, and thus better prevent them.