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Source: Art in America v82 No10, October 1994

U.N. to Prosecute Culture Crimes

by Jack Rosenberger

Art in America v82 No10, October 1994: The United Nations tribunal investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia may prosecute military personnel for the deliberate destruction of cultural property, a violation of international law. The cases would mark the first time an international court of law has charged a soldier with destroying art objects.

This fall, the United Nations International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague is expected to indict Serbian and Croatian military leaders for war crimes, including murder, torture, rape and sexual assault. "My impression is that soldiers will also be charged with the intentional destruction of cultural property," says Cherif Bassiouni, a senior U.N. war crimes investigator and professor of law at De Paul University in Chicago. Several international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Wartime and the International Convention against Genocide, outlaw the destruction of cultural property that has no military significance.

The war has created the largest destruction of cultural property in Europe since World War II, according to Arlene K. Fleming, who organized a symposium on the subject at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. Since the armed conflict first erupted in June 1991, more than 1,000 cathedrals, libraries, mosques and museums have been ransacked or destroyed. In August 1992, for example, Serbian forces intentionally bombarded the National Library in Sarajevo with incendiary grenades, destroying over 1.5 million books and manuscripts. "The destruction of the National Library is the single largest act of bookburning in European history," said Andras Riedlmayer, librarian at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University.

Led by Judge Richard A. Goldstone of South Africa, the U.N. war crimes tribunal recently completed an investigation of two test cases: Serbia's attempted destruction of the Croatian town of Dubrovnik and the Serb and Croat destruction of the Bosnian town of Mostar. From October through December 1991, Serbian gunners shelled the medieval town of Dubrovnik, despite the absence of any significant military force defending it. "The shelling was selective and deliberately aimed at the buildings in the old town and there is no doubt that the destruction of cultural property was intentional," according to a U.N. report. Over half of the buildings in Dubrovnik's old town were damaged or destroyed.

The following summer, first Serbian and then Croatian forces attacked the town of Mostar, intentionally targeting nonmilitary buildings such as the central cathedral, many mosques and all but one of its bridges. In November 1993, Croatian tanks shelled and destroyed the 16th-century bridge, built by the Turkish architect Hayruddin, that linked the Christian and Muslim sides of Mostar. A Croatian soldier told a reporter for the British newspaper INDEPENDENT, "It is not enough to cleanse Mostar of the Muslims -- the relics must also be removed."

The Clinton administration favors the proposed trials as part of its diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the area. The U.N. hasn't named any individuals who may be prosecuted, and won't until indictments are handed down, possibly as soon as this month.