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Of Rhinos and Temples: Some Ethical Considerations in Heritage Protection

October 20, 2015

Yesterday, the AFP reported that according to Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, UNESCO’s General Conference has agreed to lend its support to the idea of deploying peacekeepers to protect archaeological sites from attacks in war zones.

This does not mean that a U.N. expeditionary force will be rolling into Palmyra next month, merely that UNESCO has endorsed taking the idea to the Security Council.

Franceschini has been pushing this idea since last spring, but it is still unclear exactly what type of force he has in mind. His statement yesterday calling for the U.N. to “immediately define the operational aspects of this international task force” leaves it an open question whether he envisions this force operating on its own or as a part of the mandate of a larger United Nations peacekeeping force.

Nevertheless, the news is sure to reignite a long-smoldering debate over just how far we are willing to go to protect cultural heritage sites from ISIS. Such a proposal justifiably triggers concerns about prioritizing inanimate sites over human refugees and whether ISIS will use the West’s outsized concern for ancient sites as compared to the people who live near them for propagandistic purposes.

Elsewhere in the world, this debate is not hypothetical. On Saturday The Guardian published an article profiling anti-poaching efforts in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Poverty and unemployment next door in Mozambique have caused poaching to skyrocket. To date this year 544 rhinoceroses have been killed by poachers in Kruger park. Their horns sell for $65,000 per kilogram on the black market in southeast Asia, where they are used to make traditional medicine. Rhinoceroses have been hunted to extinction in most of Africa, and Kruger Park is home to one of the largest remaining populations. Thousands of young men from neighboring towns grab their rifles and sneak across the border hoping for an instant ticket out of poverty.

According to Mozambique’s former president, South African park rangers have killed nearly 500 Mozambican poachers in the past five years, including 82 in the first six months of 2015 alone. A spokesman for the South African National Parks Service called the numbers “highly overinflated” but declined to provide a more accurate figure. The already impoverished families of dead poachers are usually left destitute.

One way of assessing the ethics of this situation would be to simply weigh human lives against those of rhinoceroses. Add the obvious race and class issues (preserving the wildlife of Kruger Park is economically valuable for its ability to attract wealthy European and American tourists), and the deaths of poachers seems like a moral outrage.

Yet when one takes into consideration that these poachers are often members of organized criminal gangs which have usurped the authority of the police in some Mozambican border towns, the situation becomes much more complex. Few people (except the most ardent libertarians) would question the government’s authority to pass laws to protect endangered wildlife or archaeological sites. Few (except the most ardent pacifists and anarchists) would question the government’s right to use deadly force if necessary against armed criminals breaking the law.

A government’s authority is defined and maintained by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. To put it bluntly, states kill. That’s what makes them states.

In this light it is no longer an issue of life for life but of protecting the credibility of the state – a state whose existence, despite its flaws, benefits most South Africans.

But mapping this paradigm onto international conflicts creates a whole new set of problems. A U.N. intervention force would not be deployed by any body elected by the people of Syria and cannot derive legitimacy from governmental authority in the same way as the South African police. Any such force would rely on foreign countries willing to donate troops to the effort. Issues of government legitimacy and the ethics of international law are beyond the scope of this article, but I raise this issue merely to point out that to the people on the ground a foreign military force intervening without support from a domestic political process looks a lot like an invasion. Blue helmets do not automatically confer international legitimacy, especially when they are sent by an organization largely dominated by the United States, Britain and France.

Currently much of the heritage conservation world is celebrating the arrest and indictment of Malian Islamist leader Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi by the International Criminal Court for destroying tombs and medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. This is the first time anyone has been brought before the ICC on charges of destroying protected cultural sites. Yet in Africa the ICC, which has never prosecuted a single non-African, is widely denounced as a neo-colonial tool used by European powers to control African governments.

All of this is to say that legal is not the same as moral and ethical, and any attempt to impose protection of ancient sites that does not take into account the local humanitarian situation is likely to be viewed as imperialistic and become counterproductive.

Enforcement-based approaches can work to eliminate transnational crime. The suppression of piracy off the coast of Somalia is a prime recent example where harsh jail sentences, armed ship guards, and sometimes brutal military actions changed the cost/benefit calculus of those contemplating piracy on shore. The risk of getting killed began to outweigh the promise of getting rich.

Such a response may well have been justified in the case of Somali piracy, where pirates routinely tortured and murdered crew members from ships they captured. But as with the rhino poachers in Mozambique, in Syria many people looting archaeological sites do so because they feel they have no other choice. They do it because it can bring some quick cash in a desperate situation, not because they wish to destroy their own history. And it is looting, not ISIS’ staged destructions, which has destroyed the greatest number of archaeological sites in Syria.

Unlike piracy, no human lives are directly at stake in the protection of archaeological sites or endangered rhinoceroses (an exception may be made for the case of industrialized looting used to fund ISIS). Therefore, while both are worthy of protection and legally the use of force is permissible to protect them, it is a moral imperative that any effort aimed at securing them also focus on the root causes that force people to turn to looting and poaching to survive.

Over a year ago, I wrote that “Ultimately, the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria.” An initiative to protect cultural heritage sites as part of a peacekeeping mission or another larger effort to end the war in Syria should be encouraged. An effort to protect them while ignoring everything else in Syria is wrongheaded and will likely end in failure.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Yusef permalink
    October 20, 2015 2:49 PM

    Bread first, then culture. That is understandable and a good point in this post.
    However to ignore the ideological battle is missing another root problem.
    The idea of Rhino horns having special powers is a problem. The idea of Monotheism being superior to Polytheism is a problem. To not even address the ideology behind the desire for Rhino horns or the will to destroy pagan history is a blind spot in this blog post.

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