NATO won’t rule out bombing World Heritage Sites in Libya

In statements this week, NATO officials were not willing to rule out airstrikes on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Leptis Magna, where it is rumored that Gadhafi is storing rocket launchers.  One official who declined to provide his name stated, “we will strike military vehicles, military forces, military equipment or military infrastructure that threaten Libyan civilians as necessary.” Wing Commander and NATO spokesman Mike Bracken of the British Royal Air Force later remarked rather ambiguously that “if we were to take on any targets, we would consider all risks.”[1]

On Tuesday, June 14, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, urged all parties to ensure the preservation of Leptis Magna and the Old Town of Ghadamès, also a World Heritage site, known as “the pearl of the desert.”[2]  Yesterday, June 16, the Archeological Institute of America (AIA) echoed this appeal by calling on Libya and the U.S.—not NATO—to protect the sites.  In a statement on the AIA website, the organization’s CEO Peter Herdrich stated, “It is our shared responsibility as citizens of the world to be aware of the devastating loss that would result from the destruction of these sites.  By bringing their value to light, we trust that neither side will be responsible for destroying our common heritage.”[3]

Bokova had issued a similar appeal in March 2011 to encourage NATO members and Libya to respect the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  Eight members of the NATO coalition enforcing UN Resolution 1973 to protect Libyan civilians are party to the Convention: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Qatar, Spain and the United States—Britain is not.  Article 4 of the Convention provides that contracting parties will refrain from “any use of the property and its immediate surroundings…for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict….”[4]

The United States Senate delayed ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention until 2008, and did so partly in reaction to worldwide condemnation of the George W. Bush administration’s failure to protect Iraqi sites and museums in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.[5]  As a party to the Convention, the United States has a moral responsibility to assert a leadership role within the NATO coalition, stating unequivocally that all efforts will be made to protect Libyan heritage sites.

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