The World Archaeological Congress announces the adoption a new accord: “WAC Accord on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” The accord was originally proposed as a resolution to the WAC Assembly in WAC-7 Dead Sea, Jordan in January 2013. The general membership was consulted in April and May 2013, and a WAC Inter-Congress, jointly organized by The American University of Rome, Blue Shield, University of Vienna and University of Newcastle, took place in May where the content of the accord was further discussed. The accord was then approved by the WAC Council in early December 2014.
This is WAC’s third accord, following ‘The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains’ (adopted in 1989 at WAC Inter-Congress, South Dakota, USA) and ‘The Tamaki Makau-rau Accord’ (adopted in 2006 at WAC Inter-Congress, Osaka, Japan). Because of its origin, the Accord is abbreviated thus: “The Dead Sea Accord”.
These accords are important both because they are produced by a diverse group of very thoughtful and knowledgeable people, but also because they have been on the cutting of contemporary controversy and ethics. This accord will be no different; the destruction of cultural property in the event of armed conflict has galvanized the public as the world has watched the devastation of the heritage of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and many other nations across the globe.
At the foundation of the WAC accord is the belief that culture – including knowledge, history, traditions, adaptations, technological decisions, art, literature, architecture and material culture – in short, both portable and non portable, both tangible and intangible – is a basic human right.
The WAC focus on the protection of material culture as a subcategory of culture makes it clear that human rights and human life are always our priority. But this does not discount the significance of material culture – rather it makes the entanglement between humans and all aspects of their culture very clear.
For example, Colonial powers have deprived people of their native languages and certainly people can survive being forbidden to speak the language of their ancestors. But this is a clear violation of human rights with profound implications for quality of life if not survival. There is no question about a choice between people and property – we ARE our lands, our cities, our museums, our icons and our technologies. Certainly in extremis we all choose to have lives saved first, but no one can deny how impoverished these lives may be when stripped of their human rights to their culture.
So the crux of the problem we all face is to recognize the difference between the protection of cultural property as an expression of concern for human rights and when protection is an appropriation of cultural property by a settler culture that alienates people and attempts to rewrite and control the past.
The WAC accord endeavors to tread the narrow path between these two extremes. We must place human lives above culture but we must recognize and respect the fact that many people put their culture – including their material culture – above their own lives.
Koji Mizoguchi (President), Anne Pyburn (Vice-President), Akira Matsuda (Secretary), and Dru McGill (Treasurer)
On behalf of the WAC Executive and Council