The intentional destruction of cultural properties by fundamentalist groups has been defined by France Desmarais – Director of Programs and Partnerships at the International Council of Museums – as
“the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War”
The list of intentionally damaged heritage properties counts treasures of different eras and civilization. Extremists use to circulate videos on social media showing their violent destructions with hammers, bulldozers and explosives.
The rationale behind these destructions is, mainly, of a religious nature. Fundamentalist groups aim at removing all the religious symbols from the areas under their control, so to easily instill their ideology; they claim some legitimacy and justification of their violent acts blaming other religious expressions to be blasphemous.
The most severe consequence of the destruction of heritage is the loss of cultural identity and shared history. In fact, the world’s collected artworks, religious sites and cultural artifacts are not just things owned by someone, but rather part of people’s identity. They are the sum of what humankind has achieved through its various histories (Sorrel, 2016). The destruction of heritage also impedes future historical and archaeological studies, and it denies tourists and residents the possibility to enjoy the legacy of the past.
Given the increased concern about violent acts targeting heritage sites, UNESCO has adopted in 2003 the ‘UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage’, which adds to the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ signed in 1972. There, it is acknowledged that “cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities … so that its intentional destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity and human rights”. All States are responsible to protect their cultural heritage – especially when engaged in armed conflicts –, and there is a need for more international cooperation to fight against the intentional destruction of heritage, such as information exchange, consultation, provision of educational and raising awareness programs, judicial and administrative assistance (UNESCO, 2003).