President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the United States could target Iranian cultural sites has sparked alarm in Iran and beyond, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying such action would be a war crime.
Amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington following a U.S. air strike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani last week, Trump tweeted on January 4 that the United States had included sites “important to Iran & Iranian culture” in its list of 52 targets for attack should Tehran retaliate against Soleimani’s killing.
The hashtag #IranianCulturalSites was trending on Twitter, and people have flooded social media with photos of their favorite historic landmarks and monuments, Bloomberg reported on January 6.
In a statement, HRW said that the laws of war “prohibit deliberate attacks on civilian objects not being used for military purposes.”
The New York-based human rights watchdog cited Article 53 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions as specifically prohibiting any acts of hostility against cultural objects.
“The U.S. Law of War Manual (2016), which has extensive provisions relating to the protection of cultural property, incorporates this provision into U.S. law,” it added, insisting that the United States is also a party to the Hague Convention For The Protection Of Cultural Property In The Event Of Armed Conflict, which similarly prohibits attacks on cultural sites.
Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at HRW, urged Trump to “publicly reverse his threats against Iran’s cultural property and make clear that he will not authorize nor order war crimes.”
The U.S. Defense Department should also “publicly reaffirm its commitment to abide by the laws of war and comply only with lawful military orders,” according to Prasow.
In Paris, the head of the UN’s cultural agency noted that both the United States and Iran have ratified treaties protecting cultural sites during war.
Meeting with the Iranian ambassador to the organization, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay stressed “the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”
Iran is home to 22 cultural sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, including Persepolis with its ancient ruins that date back to 518 BC, the 17th century grand mosque of Isfahan, and the Golestan Palace in Tehran.