Dr. Joseph Powderly

Seeing Beyond the Rubble: Heritage Destruction, Gender and International Law


The intentional destruction of cultural heritage and the crime of persecution are inextricably interlinked. Both acts are predicated on oppression, discrimination, and the disruption, denial, and the ultimate eradication of the foundations of individual and group identity. States, international organizations, and civil society have been outspoken in expressing their outrage and condemnation of the wanton destruction of physical cultural heritage sites and objects by state and non-state armed groups in recent conflicts. However, attacks on cultural heritage and persecution on the basis of group identity are, in reality, much more extensive and insidious than just the destruction of sites and objects in situations of armed conflict.

Some advances have been made in specifically engaging with women’s cultural rights free of essentialism and cognisant of the frequent tensions between individual and group identity. A central issue that both scholarship and accountability efforts have failed to address, however, is the role that gender plays in the destruction of cultural heritage and the persecution of groups. Examining heritage destruction through a gender lens is critical to fully understanding the multiplicity and the complexity of harms to which it gives rise.

While heritage destruction targets group identity, men and women within the group may be the victims of vastly different acts and specific forms of harm, which result directly or indirectly in the destruction of the cultural heritage of the group.This exploratory paper looks broadly at the intersectionality of gender and heritage destruction. It sketches out scenarios where tangible cultural heritage is targeted on gender grounds, and contexts in which gender-based violence is used as a means of persecuting national, ethnic, religious or cultural groups and destroying their intangible cultural heritage. It offers reflections on the extent to which different branches of international law – international cultural heritage law, human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law – are capable of addressing these gendered harms and providing some degree of accountability for heritage destruction and the crime against humanity of persecution.

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