The Hague Convention for Protection of Cultural Property and UNESCO monitoring mission are the main legal instruments allocated protect cultural heritage in the occupied territories – officials, experts


Experts and officials discuss legal and practical steps to preserve cultural heritage in the occupied territories of Ukraine. They say these practices should be standardized and note the importance of international mechanisms.

Kyiv, June 21, 2016. Lessons learned from occupation of Donbas and Crimea have become the basis for developing a clear method of actions for museum staff in case of war or mass disorder. It has to include the setup of adequate communication between museums and responsible agencies at all levels, respective instructions to museum and military staff, as well as establish inventories of cultural property and arrange the registries properly. The current priority is to launch international mechanisms for protection of cultural heritage in the occupied territory. It is important to ratify the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention on Protection of the Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. UNESCO needs to put the outstanding monuments and sites of Crimea on the List of World Heritage as “in Danger” in order for the international monitoring mission to intervene, stated representatives of the expert community from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs Ministry during the discussion at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.  

According to inventories of the Ministry of Culture, the number of cultural monuments and sites in the temporarily occupied territories considerably exceed the figures voiced earlier: 70 museums and around two million items of cultural heritage. “According to the latest information there are 82 museums in Crimea alone and 17 in Sevastopol, or 99 museums in total. There are also 24 museums in occupied Donetsk and 23 in occupied Luhansk regions,” said Vasyl Rozhko, Head of the Department for museum management and cultural valuables of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. There is a risk that cultural property from Crimea and/or Donbas will be smuggled to Russia or other countries. It is now up to Ukraine to ask the international community to not cooperate with Russian museums that might attempt to showcase them abroad.  

Ukraine could call upon Hague Convention’s Protection of the Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and UNESCO’s monitoring mission for endangered cultural monuments and sites. The issue should be raised at the 40th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee that is due to start in Istanbul on July 10. “I hope we will finally put Tauric Chersonese on the list as well as at least one more site on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Tauric Cheronese is home to a series of monuments and cultural landscape of the Khan Palace in Bakhchysarai,” noted Mykola Yakovyna, former President of the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Chairman of the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Committee of Blue Shield (ICBS).

Serhiy Reva, Ambassador-at-Large on cooperation with UNESCO at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine noted that sending a monitoring mission to Crimea is one of the priority tasks. Ukraine has already prepared a report on the situation with Chersonese. “In our opinion such a mission should not be limited to Chersonese only. We call upon the establishment of a comprehensive monitoring mission that would comprise representatives of the UNESCO Secretariat, conventional agencies and interested member states including Ukraine,” he explained. “It is not in our interest that such a monitoring mission is  short-term with a limited mandate, only able to visit only the places where Russians wish take them to. During such visits they will see the reality that they want them to see,” emphasized Serhiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine on European Integration.

It is also necessary to ratify the Second Protocol of the Hague Convention on Protection of the Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict adopted back in 1999. It foresees among the rest personal criminal liability for illegal actions undertaken in relation to the cultural property. Eventual damage to them is qualified as a war crime. Mykola Yakovyna noted that in accordance with the work plan of UNESCO’s National Commission for the current year the document in question has to be ratified before August, however there are concerns that it may not even be brought up for a vote in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament).

There also needs to be a registry for cases of theft, damage or destruction to cultural property in Crimea, and indictments need to begin, emphasized Petukhov. It will hold the guilty liable. Moreover, proof needs to be collected and personal sanctions need to be introduced against such persons; for example, against the Director General of Hermitage who openly stated that the museum’s funds had been replenished as a result of excavation in Crimea, which is illegal according to the international legal framework. “If we keep these issues on the agenda we would possibly be more efficient in bringing these issues in the spotlight at international level,” noted the Deputy Minister of Justice. The judicial systems in other countries can be used should the cultural property from the occupied territories get into their jurisdiction.

As to the work at the national level, it is necessary to continue compiling the inventory of cultural property and establish regular comprehensive communication between all responsible agencies. Since these two factors were lacking back in 2014 all actions were untimely and badly coordinated. It should be done today because the situation in the ATO zone can unfold in a truly unpredictable way. “We are currently in touch with over two thousand museums in 16 regions but it is not enough as there are over 12 thousand in total,” noted Rozhko. The list of valuables that have been stolen in occupied Donbas is to be published as soon as possible. “It is expected to be helpful not only for the Security Service but for the arts collectors as well, so that they understand that they are not dealing with stolen items,” he noted.

Experts that were working in the east before the ATO began note that the situation in museums in the uncontrolled areas is not subject to grave concerns. According to Halyna Chumak, former director of the Donetsk regional arts museum and actual assistant to the Director General of the National Art Museum of Ukraine, no exhibits have been taken away from the Donetsk and Horlivka museums. “I have no worries at all about my native museum,” she noted. “A typical question for today is in what way the exhibits that are on Ukraine-controlled territory should be preserved.”

It is of the utmost importance to train the military as to how damage to cultural heritage in the combat zone can be minimized. “We have counted over 10 burial mounds in Donetsk region that were destroyed by Ukrainian servicemen. It is comprehensive that this is not something they were thinking about at those particular moments, but it also represents a problem,” noted Yuriy Polidovych, lead researcher of the Museum of Historic Valuables of Ukraine and former staff member of the Donetsk regional history museum. One should consider an opportunity to mark these sites on operational maps for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and set up a unit within the Ukrainian Armed Forces that would have expertise in artistic heritage following the example of NATO. The personnel would instruct the military as how to choose the best positions in regard to preservation of heritage, suggested Ihor Poshyvaylo, Director of the Memorial Complex of Heaven’s Hundred – the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity. “We have already created playing cards for servicemen with basic methods written on them meant to help preserve cultural heritage,” he added. Moreover valuables located in the frontline area need to be evacuated, emphasized Maksym Strykhar, staff member of the National Reserve Sophia Kyivska. He particularly emphasized the funds of the Greek culture museum in Hranitne, Mariupol area. This could fall under the responsibility of the civil-military cooperation officers.