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Hague Convention - The protection of cultural assets

Labelling for cultural property, objectives and scope of the Hague Convention

As a part of the history of a nation, a cultural asset is a living part of society or cultural memory. Restoration measures ensure that a cultural asset can be preserved in its original condition.


Due to the vulnerability and fragility of cultural property, the Hague Convention created a set of measures to better protect such property in the event of armed conflict. The idea for the Hague Convention was born in 1954 following the very present effects of the Second World War, to which many cultural assets had fallen victim worldwide. It was to be assumed that in future even greater destruction would be possible through new technology in weapons and that targeted attacks on cultural assets could also characterise a military conflict. In Germany, this central document for the preservation of cultural assets came into existence in 1967. The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance is responsible for the implementation and monitoring of relevant measures. Corresponding initiatives are coordinated and implemented with the federal states.

Cultural property: nature and scope of protection under the Hague Convention

Legally, the protection of a cultural asset is enshrined in international law. Article 3 of the Hague Convention stipulates that protective measures are mandatory even in times of peace in order to be prepared for all eventualities. Depending on the object, the protection of cultural property can take different forms or relate to movable and immovable objects. Libraries and archives are protected by microfilming as backup filming. Apart from this, the Hague Convention provides for the development of guidelines for building salvage rooms for movable cultural property. Immovable cultural property, i.e. various types of buildings, are photogrammetrically recorded so that detailed restoration is possible after an attack. With regard to museums and cultural sites, the Convention provides for expert guidance for the construction of salvage rooms.

However, wars in the 1990s showed that the measures of the Hague Convention in its first version were often insufficient. For this reason, a new version was adopted in 1999, which came into effect in Germany in 2010. The focus is on increased protection for cultural property in connection with criminal law consequences. Another new feature of the second version of the Hague Convention is a committee of 12 governments, so that from now on a permanent monitoring body will ensure more effective protection. Certain cultural assets, such as those from the important UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be placed under increased protection.

Scope and effectiveness of the protection of cultural property

The scope is further described in Article 18 of the Hague Convention. It is of paramount importance that the above-mentioned activities for the protection of cultural property are carried out already in a quasi-preventive manner in peacetime. The Hague Convention applies in particular in the event of a declared war or armed conflict. It is not formally necessary for a state of war to be declared. The Convention is also applied when territories are occupied without necessarily leading to armed conflict. It is envisaged that the conventions for the protection of cultural property will also apply when an opposing power is not a party to the declarations. The applicability then results from the mutual relations. The effectiveness of the first decisions from the 1950s proved to be insufficiently profound in the light of the recent wars in the Balkans. The decades of peace in Europe mean that there is no reliable empirical evidence as to the effectiveness of the innovations from the second version of the Hague Convention. What is certain, however, is that a great deal of preventive work has been done through planning for protective measures and appropriate identification, which will pay off in the event of war.

Labelling of a cultural property under the Hague Convention

In accordance with the Hague Convention, cultural protection in practice becomes visible wherever the official registration number is visible. This is a blue and white sign, which is pointed downwards. It resembles a coat of arms. Buildings that have this shield are under special protection in case of a military conflict. As a secondary information, this sign draws the attention of the viewer to the high cultural value of a historical building. Apart from the simple marking, in individual cases it can also be tripled. In that case the symbol of the Hague Convention can be found in triplicate. This is always the case when an immovable cultural object is under special protection or when certain conditions must be met for the transport of cultural objects. Furthermore, improvised salvage sites can be marked in triplicate with the Hague Convention's identification symbol. Increased protection is imposed for very important cultural property. The emblem is then given a thick red border in the form of an upside-down house.

The subject of conervation-restoration is a further, indispensable component of the protection and preservation of cultural assets. The work of experienced conservator-restorers plays an important role in many conceivable scenarios around the Hague Convention.

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