Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

UNESCO: Palmyra Temple Bombing Deemed a War Crime

(Sept. 10, 2015) On August 24, 2015, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, issued a statement condemning the destruction the previous day of the temple of Baalshamin by Islamic militants. That temple is an ancient structure that formed part of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria; the Syrian Arab Republic joined UNESCO on November 16, 1946. (Director-General Irina Bokova Firmly Condemns the Destruction of Palmyra’s Ancient Temple of Baalshamin, Syria, UNESCO website (Aug. 24, 2015); Member States List: Syrian Arab Republic, UNESCO website (last visited Sept. 2, 2015).) According to UNESCO,

Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. (Site of Palmyra, UNESCO website (last visited Sept. 2, 2015).)

Bokova stated, “[t]he systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history. … [T]his destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” (Director-General Irina Bokova Firmly Condemns the Destruction of Palmyra’s Ancient Temple of Baalshamin, Syria, supra.) She also urged the international community “to stand united against this persistent cultural cleansing” of the “diversity and richness” of Syria’s history and identity as symbolized by Palmyra. (Id.)

The destruction of Baalshamin occurred one week after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) beheaded 81-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who had reportedly looked after the ruins for 40 years, and three days after the destruction of the Mar Elian monastery in the Syrian town of al-Qaryatayn. (Palmyra’s Temple of Bel Destroyed, Says UN, BBC NEWS (Sept. 1, 2015); Director-General Irina Bokova Condemns the Destruction of the Mar Elian Monastery in Syria, UNESCO website (Aug. 21, 2015).) It was reported that another ancient Palmyra edifice, the Temple of Bel, was destroyed on August 30 by ISIS militants, and in a press release, Bokova decried the destruction as an “intolerable crime against civilization.” (Press Release, Director-General Irina Bokova Expresses Consternation at the Destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, UNESCO website (Sept. 1, 2015).)

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), “war crimes” means, among other acts, “[g]rave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949,” including “[e]xtensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.” It also encompasses “[o]ther serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict” including “[i]ntentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives.” (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (July 17, 1998, in force on July 1, 2002, as amended), UNTS vol. 2187, No. 38544, art. 8, ICC website.)