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Dhaka Tribune

Before they disappear

Assessing the importance of the implementation of international conventions to protect World Heritage Sites such as the Sundarbans

Update : 22 Apr 2022, 12:00 PM

In Bangladesh, people often complain about running out of places to visit. This is due to the fact that oftentimes, the most renowned World Heritage Sites such as Mahasthangarh, the ruins of the Buddhist Bihara at Paharpur, amongst others, are not properly promoted, which must be done in accordance with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). 

Furthermore, very recently, UNESCO has also labelled the Sundarbans to be under threat due to climate change and various industrial developments. However, under international conventions, it is the responsibility of the state government to promote and protect its natural heritage sites. Inability to do so can result in breaches of several international conventions.

In times of conflicts, cultural heritage is protected by a number of international conventions and laws. Despite the fact that they have been approved by a large number of countries, they are only binding on those which choose to join -- which is normally done through ratification, accession, approval, or acceptance of the convention by the state.  

In fact, the destruction of cultural heritage sites is considered to be a “war crime.” Each international convention has legal force only within the sphere of its application, which is normally defined by whether or not the states have signed and ratified those conventions, the timeframe it covers, and its subject matter, for example the importance of cultural property as defined by the convention.  

Despite the regional and municipal differences in legislation and the fact that not all laws and conventions are not legally enforceable, there has been some agreement. In general, as mentioned before, cultural heritage is protected against any act of hostility under law of armed conflict as long as it is not employed for military reasons at the same time. 

There are however four key aspects that must be adhered to by all states during armed conflicts, regardless of whether they have acceded to or accepted the legal framework. 

The first part includes the obligation of each party to a conflict to respect cultural property. There must be special care taken during conducting military operations in order to avoid damages to buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, education, or charitable purposes and historic monuments unless they are essentially military objects. There also exists the prohibition to use cultural property of great importance for the purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage, unless imperatively required by the military necessity. 

Each party to the conflict also has obligations to protect cultural property. It is also further mentioned that all seizure of or destruction of or willful damage done to religion, charity, education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments, and works of art and sciences are prohibited. There are also obligations for the occupied power to prevent the illicit export of cultural property from occupied territory and to return illicitly exported property to the component authorities of the occupied territory. 

The most important conventions which relate to cultural protection are the Geneva Convention (1949) and Additional Protocols I and II (1977), which forbids pillage and destruction of cultural property by invading or occupying forces. The Hague Convention (1954) and its first and second protocols (1954/1999), which is the only international instrument aimed at specifically protecting cultural heritage during an armed conflict and occupation and defines the circumstances under which cultural property may be attacked as well as methods for its protection. 

Furthermore, the World Heritage Convention (1972) sets out the duties of state parties in identifying potential sites of outstanding importance to mankind and their role in protecting and preserving them as well as protecting their natural heritage. There also exists the convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects (1995) which allows for the prosecution of individual war criminals for destructive acts or operating against cultural heritage. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has the jurisdiction to exercise its jurisdiction against any party who violates these conventions.

Even though works of archaeology are open for public domain, archaeologists who are responsible for the discovery of various monuments can have its copyright license for an exclusive period of time under intellectual property law. This makes the data collection, video footage sharing, and further expedition of these sites solely exclusive to them. 

In Bangladesh, even though there exists the “Antiques Act of 1968” there has not been any genuine efforts made to amend and implement this act. It is very important for the implementation of international conventions in order to protect and preserve World Heritage Sites such as the Sundarbans. 

Mashrur Ahmed Zidane is a freelance contributor. 

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