Urban Cultural Heritage

International conventions on urban cultural heritage

Since the end of the Second World War the international community, notably UNESCO, has developed a comprehensive body of conventions and declarations on protecting and preserving cultural heritage.

These include the two protocols of The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the World Heritage Convention of 1972, and numerous other recommendations, charters and accords relating to urban conservation, restoration, disaster risks and management.


Today’s widespread destruction of urban cultural heritage during armed conflicts, as exemplified in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, poses unprecedented challenges as regards recovery and restoration.

Among the key organisations seeking to address these difficulties are UNESCO, the World Bank, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), but their endeavours remain uncoordinated in the absence of clearly defined individual competences. In addition, they have been focusing primarily on ancient monuments and overlooking urbanised settlements and cities.

Apart from the influence exerted by the forenamed organisations, the pre-conflict commitments of state parties to relevant international conventions can play an important role in formulating the vision and objectives of reconstruction. This applies in particular to the listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, whose custodians are obliged to conserve, protect and restore the outstanding universal value that is important for current and future generations.

Users and target audience

Although state parties accept sovereign responsibility for cultural heritage when they sign international conventions, calling on nations to fulfil their obligations is often a fruitless undertaking in times of civil war or political unrest. Nonetheless, both the international community and local organisations can invoke the body of international heritage conventions and petition for culturally sensitive reconstruction to take place.


The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict

© Gutbrod/Picture alliance/dpa

The UNESCO Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict covers immovable and movable cultural heritage. The success of its first protocol, adopted in 1954, which sought to protect ‘property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people’, was hampered primarily by incomplete lists and a lack of clear identification.

In the wake of further conflicts, a second protocol was passed in 1999 with the purpose of strengthening the convention. It provided for the establishment of a system of enhanced protection for ‘cultural heritage of the greatest importance for humanity’.

The effectiveness of the convention and its two protocols ultimately depend on good faith and reciprocity, and it lacks useful purpose unless all parties to a conflict are signatories. If any such parties are not state actors, moreover, they are disqualified from signing the convention.

UNESCO World Heritage Convention 1972


The 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) ranks among the most important global conservation instruments. Its primary mission is to identify and protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage considered to be of outstanding universal value. It embodies the visionary idea that some places are so important that responsibility for their protection rests not solely with a single nation, but with international community as a whole. State parties signing the convention agree to refrain from any deliberate measures capable of damaging the cultural and natural heritage of other parties to the convention, and to help other parties to identify and protect their properties.

Implementation of the convention is facilitated through operational guidelines, which define the procedures for new inscriptions, site protection, danger listings, and the provision of international assistance under the World Heritage Fund.

The convention is governed by the World Heritage Committee with the support of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the Secretariat for the Convention, and three technical advisory bodies to the Committee: IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM. IUCN is the advisory body on natural heritage. It monitors listed sites and evaluates new sites nominated to the World Heritage List by applying the relevant natural criteria for selection.

The convention recognises both the spectrum of threats of destruction to cultural and natural heritage, including outbreaks of armed conflict, and the often insufficient scope of resources available to the affected state party.

List of World Heritage in Danger

Cultural Heritage in Danger © UNESCO

The World Heritage Committee prepares and publishes a List of World Heritage in Danger containing sites that are threatened by serious and specific dangers, such as:

  • development projects
  • the outbreak or threat of armed conflict
  • natural disasters.

The Committee seeks state parties consent prior to any ‘in danger’ listing, but in cases where a site is threatened and there is no effective government in place, it can reach a decision on its own. Each time the Committee makes a new entry in the list, it is required to publicise it immediately.

The List of World Heritage in danger currently contains 54 properties, more than half of which are situated located in Middle East. Most World Heritage properties in the territories of Syria, Yemen and Iraq are inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Legal action through the International Criminal Court

© Jerry Lampen/Pool/Picture alliance/dpa

The ICC is an intergovernmental organisation and international tribunal that sits in The Hague in the Netherlands. In recognition of the importance of protecting cultural heritage from attack in times of conflict, UNESCO and the ICC formalised and enhanced their collaboration by signing a letter of intent in November 2017.

In a statement marking the signing, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, said, “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage not only affects people’s historical identity but fuels sectarian violence and hampers post-conflict recovery and peace-building. UNESCO and the ICC must strengthen their cooperation for the protection of cultural property in armed conflicts, as this is a humanitarian and security imperative.”

The recent historic ruling of the ICC in the case of the destruction of shrines and mausoleums in Timbuktu (Mali), which was the first of its kind, clearly demonstrated that the intentional targeting of cultural heritage is a serious crime which causes significant suffering to those immediately affected and beyond. The court subsequently issued a reparation order, establishing that the victims of such crimes were entitled to compensation.

The importance of prosecuting those responsible for war crimes against cultural heritage was echoed in the ground-breaking UN Security Council Resolution 2347, which was the first to condemn the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage. In recent years these unprecedented developments have prompted frequent exchanges and collaboration between UNESCO and the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, based on the convergence of aims within their respective independent mandates.

UNESCO intervention to protect and recover the World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik in Croatia

© Picture alliance/dpa

The city of Dubrovnik in southern Croatia fronting the Adriatic Sea is famous for its distinctive Old Town, which was built in the 15th and 16th centuries and is encircled by massive stone walls. Its well-preserved buildings include the Baroque St. Blaise Church, the Renaissance Sponza Palace and the Gothic Rector’s Palace. In 1979 the city became one of the first sites to be included in the World Heritage List.

Between October 1991 and May 1992 the city was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which was striving for territorial gains. Dubrovnik does not have any strategic military importance – the purpose of attacking its cultural heritage was to destroy a symbol of Croatian national identity. This act of aggression damaged 542 architectural monuments in the historic city centre.

Action taken to protect the old city included:

  • Architectural monuments were clearly identified by a mark of protection sign in line with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
  • The most important architectural monuments were protected with sandbags or other means.
  • The JNA was reminded of its obligations in respect of the 1954 Hague Convention.
  • In November 1991 a UNESCO mission was sent to Dubrovnik to support local conservators and art historians in analysing and recording the damage. Using architectural drawings, photographs and documents produced after an earthquake in 1979, the UNESCO experts established a documentation system that classified the historic buildings according to the extent of their damage and usability.
  • As a result of this mission, the city was inscribed in the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in order to draw international attention to the situation and initiate the necessary emergency protection measures.

After the Balkan conflict, Croatian and international experts representing UNESCO drafted an action plan which defined priorities and a methodology for reconstruction, including the use of traditional construction techniques and materials, the preservation of original structures, and the conservation of historic buildings.

In December 1998 the city of Dubrovnik was removed from the List of World of Heritage Sites in Danger.

© Jürgen Schwenkenbecher/Picture alliance

Further Reference and Resources

Date: 24. August 2018 | Last modified: 16. August 2019

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