Cultural heritage and armed conflict


Institutional Communication Service

4 July 2022

The war in Ukraine also presents, in addition to the tragedy of the loss of human lives, the tragedy of the destruction of artistic and cultural heritage. We discuss this with Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, director of the “UNESCO Chair in ICT to develop and promote sustainable tourism in World Heritage Sites”, who has been at USI since 2013.The conversation helps us to understand the role of art and culture even during an armed conflict, and what the international agreements are in this regard, it is also an opportunity to see how USI supports students and researchers from that country.


Professor Cantoni, in recent months we have observed, with some amazement, that cultural activities in Ukraine have continued during these months of war: there are concerts, exhibitions, performances...

This is true: it's a very important reaction, although at first glance difficult to understand.

In a context where physical survival becomes a major concern, one would expect cultural activities to be suspended. On the contrary: they are a way of reaffirming that we are much more than a war can threaten and destroy. That our spirit, our culture is stronger than violence and death.

During the twentieth century totalitarianism of Nazism and communism, we saw numerous artists claim truth and freedom even in the midst of concentration camps and gulags; I am thinking for example of the work of Aleksandr Solženicyn, Nobel laureate in literature in 1970, who was able to transform his experience as a prisoner in the Soviet Union into a fine literary narrative.

At a time when lies and death prevail, there is all the more need to reaffirm the value of the spirit and that which makes us human.


In every armed conflict, not only people are affected but also property, including artistic and cultural heritage. What is the role of UNESCO?

Immediately after the Second World War, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), promoted a reflection on how the impact of conflict on artistic heritage could be mitigated. The effects of the recently concluded war, with its looting and bombing, were very evident, but it was equally clear that each war had had similar effects: let us think, for example, of the thefts of works of art by Napoleon in his various campaigns.

In 1954, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was concluded in The Hague, followed by two protocols, in 1954 and 1999 (the latter not signed by Russia). While the four Geneva Conventions deal with the protection of persons in the event of armed conflict, thus constituting the basis of international humanitarian law, the Hague Convention stipulates that "The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict; and by refraining from any act of hostility, directed against such property" (Art. 4, 1).

Subsequently, also to protect "tangible" artistic heritage, UNESCO promoted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), which is dealt with in particular by the USI Chair, and the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001).


Is UNESCO monitoring the conflict in Ukraine?

Certainly. The most recent UNESCO report, published on 20 June and updated on 28 June, verified that 154 sites have been damaged since 24 February: 70 religious buildings, 12 museums, 30 historic buildings, 19 buildings dedicated to cultural activities, 16 monuments and 7 libraries. At the moment, no World Heritage Site protected by the 1972 Convention has been damaged.

Monitoring activities are then accompanied by activities to raise awareness, support and coordinate interventions.


One of the most dramatic consequences of a conflict is the impact on students and teachers, Professor Cantoni, you are also Pro-Rector for Education and Students' Experience: what is USI doing in this regard?

USI supports students affected by the conflict both through loans and dedicated scholarships and by establishing "exceptional" admission arrangements that take into account the delicate situation of these people.

Our university is also involved in a number of other initiatives, coordinated by the International Relations and Study Abroad Service, for example in support of researchers, both from Ukraine and from Russia and Belarus, where freedom of education and opinion are under serious threat.



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