CDR Michael Hallett, NATO HQ SACT Representative opening the course
NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT), the International Military Cultural Resources Working Group (IMCURWG) and the Austrian National Defense Academy (NDA) recently conducted a Pilot Course on Cultural Property Protection. From the 29th of November to the 2nd of December, NATO and NATO partner personnel gathered at the Austrian National Defense Academy in Vienna to attend this training event.

Professionals from 13 countries and diverse backgrounds composed the audience. The participants were not only members of national armed forces, but also civilians operating in the field of cultural heritage protection, archaeologists and historians. 

The course was designed to enhance NATO’s Cultural Property Protection (CPP) capabilities and to establish a new structured and institutionalized forum of discussion. The lectures addressed a number of issues. For instance, on the opening day the conversation focused on the value and utility of CPP and on the way in which it should be implemented in the Military Decision Making Process. 

The Blue Shield emblem on a historic building in Wiener Neustadt, Austria
The Austrian approach was taken as an example of good practice, recognizing that only a limited number of armed forces are effectively complying with the principles accepted by international customary law and articulated in the 1954 Hague Convention and its protocols.

A number of case studies were presented to illustrate both good and bad practice (Afghanistan, Iraq, Macedonia, Libya). Members of the Blue Shield emergency assessment mission to Libya (Dr. Kila, Karl von Habsburg and Dr. Walda) presented the results of their investigations and described their efforts to compile a non-strike list. A list that was then forwarded to NATO and might have been at the base of the care and attention paid by the Alliance in avoiding sites of cultural relevance during the ‘surgical strikes’ on the Libyan territory.

Members of the Austrian Armed Forces briefly introduced the principles of international law that are regulating the protection of cultural property in times of conflict. In addition to this, the Austrian Defence Academy engaged the participants in a practical exercise based on a scenario commonly used for the ordinary training of their National Army.

From the left: Major Laire, Dr. Rush, Dr. COL Speckner, CDR Hallett
During the course, Dr. Laurie Rush and Dr. James Zeidler presented the activities of the CENTCOM Historical/Cultural Action Group. They described a variety of training tools developed for the US Department of Defense to raise awareness among military personnel and contractors about the importance and value of protecting cultural property.  Though, what I appreciated the most was the fact that their presentations were not structured simply as self-promoting discourses (all too common…). On the contrary, what I found most useful was their ability to use case studies to demonstrate how the lack of knowledge is frequently the primary cause of destruction and damage of cultural property. Mistakes that could have easily been avoided by informed commanders and trained soldiers. Starting from the description of  real situations that the military had to face in Afghanistan and in Iraq, a series of lessons were drawn. In particular it was possible for them to stress the importance of designing and institutionalising specific training modules on heritage issues. The message was that only through knowledge and awareness damages can be minimised if not prevented.

The course was not structured to deliver a complete and exhaustive training on CPP matters. It appeared more like a round table where, after each presentation, the audience would come alive with questions and suggestions to find a way forward. What was clear, by the end of the week, was that at both national and international level there is a general and widespread lack of concrete measures to enforce and implement of the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention. One fundamental question was also that there is not a commonly agreed definition of the professional figure of the Cultural Property Advisor or Specialist. It seems that the rising awareness of the fact that cultural heritage should be taken into consideration during military operations has created a new professional niche. However, until this professional figure is not formally defined the risk is that all the efforts of good will made by NATO (or by any national military force) will be vain and might result in a further loss of credibility. 

To close the course CDR Hallett introduced one of the tools that could be used by anyone who felt the need to stimulate a change of approach within NATO. He presented the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre  and its database. By registering to the database it is possible to submit observations, sugestions and comments on specific issues related to NATO operations. The database can then be accessed and all the entries queried. Obviously, the contributions submitted need to meet certain criteria to be taken into consideration and included in the database, but once accepted they are analysed and become part of a corpus of information that can be beneficial to others and that can eventually stimulate a process of change within the Alliance. It is hard to predict how effective this tool might be. However, for those who believe that we are in desperate need of a radical change in the way in which the military are approaching cultural heritage issues, it might be worth a try!


Last week NATO TV posted on its website these two video to report on Libya and the state of its cultural heritage after the air raids of the Alliance. It is very difficult to tell if no damage occurred because NATO adopted the No-Strike list compiled by the Blue Shield or by pure chance. However, the NATO campaign, with its 9,300 airstrikes over Libya (from March to October 2011), managed to spare numerous sites even those that were militarily relevant. An example of precise targeting is given by Hafed Walda,  research fellow at Kings College in London, and  member of the Blue Shield assessment mission, who recently spoke about  Rasaimergib Fort. Here NATO had to take out a number of radars placed on the hilltop and managed to destroy the target without affecting the ancient Roman arch in its proximity.
It is certainly a good news that the Libyan archaeological patrimony has not been affected by these raids. However, a lot still  needs to be done within NATO in order to rise awareness on cultural heritage issue. In particular it is necessary to be able to assess wether the no-strike list used by the military are really taking cultural heritage into consideration or not.