The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 led to the 2003 adoption of the declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO General Conference (Vrdoljak, 2007). Along with other notable international conventions, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Hague Conventions, the basis for international law regarding the preservation of cultural heritage is derived. The 2003 UNESCO Declaration pointedly brought into focus the necessity of proactive measures to ensure historic buildings, monuments, artifacts, etc. are safeguarded from acts of aggression during either times of war or peace.
The 2003 UNESCO Declaration sought to first ensure that the protection afforded cultural landmarks is adequate to prevent irreversible damage from both external and internal sources. The Declaration also stated the importance of actively preserving these sites and artifacts for the benefit of humanity in general as a means of promoting cultural tolerance and diversity (UNESCO, 2003). The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas amounted to a severe violation of established international law regarding cultural heritage and was the impetus for renewed vigor in safeguarding those World Heritage Sites established by UNESCO. What’s important to note, however, is that international law is by no means binding unless a state first acknowledges and then accepts its authority.
While Afghanistan’s government from 1996-2001, the Taliban, was recognized by numerous states and it was in fact party to numerous international agreements including UNESCO, there are two main points in the Taliban’s failure to comply with established etiquette regarding cultural artifacts. First, it’s important to keep in mind the lack of any central governing authority acting at a level above the sovereignty of individual states. In light of this, compliance with any international agreement, especially one regarding a relatively minor subject such as culture, is by no means guaranteed. Next, the odds of a state ignoring those treaties they are a party to when compliance doesn’t suit them is dramatically increased when that government is tyrannical or, in the case of Afghanistan, a state-sponsor of terrorism. Combining these two facts makes the existence of international law almost an afterthought without the appropriate mechanism in place to enforce those laws.
Still, the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas constituted a serious affront to cultural preservation; as such, the restoration of the 1500-year-old statues is underway (CBCNews, 2007). International law can do nothing but watch as history is destroyed by an intolerant, repressive regime. What’s most striking about the outpouring of money from around the world to restore the statues is summed up by Afghani journalist Hebah Abdalla’s response to the expensive restoration efforts: “There was no ‘worldwide horror’ or ‘international outrage’ when UN officials announced Friday that more than 260 people have died in displacement camps in northern Afghanistan, where an additional 117,000 people are living in miserable conditions. … Perhaps the only consolation in all of this is that these refugees may never know how much the world cared for two statues and how little it cared for them” (Rathje, 2001).
CBCNews, “Restoration goes slowly for Bamiyan Buddhas.” cbc.ca. 23 Apr 2007. Canadian Broadcasting Centre. 2 Jan 2009 http://www.cbc.ca/arts/artdesign/story/2007/04/23/buddhas-bamiyan-afghan.html.
Rathje, W.L.. “Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas.” usatoday.com. 22 Mar 2001. USA Today. 2 Jan 2009 http://www.usatoday.com/news/science/archaeology/2001-03-22-afghan-buddhas.htm.
UNESCO, “UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage.” portal.unesco.org. 17 Oct 2003. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 2 Jan 2009 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17718&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.
Vrdoljak, A.F.. “Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage and International Law.” works.bepress.com. 2007. European University Institute. 2 Jan 2009 http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=ana_filipa_vrdoljak.