Targeting Cultural Sites in War Is Illegal. It’s Also Barbaric.

President Trump’s repeated threats to destroy Iran’s treasures of art and architecture make the United States seem as debased as ISIS‌ or the Taliban.

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The wars and insurgencies that battered the Middle East over the last decade delivered not only a horrible toll of death and displacement, but also a wasteland of cultural destruction, reducing to rubble the Assyrian gates of Nineveh, the Great Mosque of Aleppo and countless other treasures, ancient and modern.

This past weekend the American commander-in-chief, scrambling to contain the fallout from the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran, proclaimed via Twitter that “if Iran strikes any Americans,”‌ the United States would retaliate by blasting a list of 52 Iranian sites that he said were “important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Historians, legal scholars, and Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren noted that targeting sites of cultural importance in this way would constitute a war crime — and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went out of his way to clarify on Sunday morning television that “the American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target.”

But Mr. Trump reaffirmed that he saw culture as fair game. “They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president told reporters on Air Force One. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Despite the president’s threats, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday explicitly ruled out targeting cultural sites in Iran in response to any Iranian attacks.

There’s a reason the Pentagon said as much: The targeted destruction of such antiquities is, unambiguously, a war crime. The most relevant legal instrument is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted to prevent the type of plundering of art the Nazis undertook during World War II.

The convention states, among other principles, that countries “shall refrain from any act directed by way of reprisals against cultural property.” (The United States Senate, with the support of the Bush administration, ratified the convention in 2008.) Such acts of war would also obviously violate the UNESCO‌ World Heritage Convention, which establishes that national treasures also form part of a protected global patrimony.

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