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28 Jun 2016

Parliament considers new law ratifying the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict


On 18 May 2016, it was announced in the Queen’s Speech that the UK government would finally introduce a bill to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (the “Convention”) and its accompanying Protocols.

The new Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill (the “Bill”) is quickly making its way through Parliament and had its second reading in the House of Lords on 6 June 2016. The Bill is being considered by a Parliamentary committee today.


The Convention is an international treaty which sets out a framework to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict. It was introduced in 1954 in response to the extensive destruction of cultural property during the Second World War.

The Convention defines “cultural property” as follows:

(a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people. Examples listed in the Convention include monuments, architecture, art or history, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest;
(b)  buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined at (a) above (this might include, for example, museums and galleries); and

(c) centres containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in (a) and (b) above.

The First Protocol was adopted in 1954 at the same time as the Convention. It sets out contracting parties’ obligations in relation to cultural property in occupied territories and where cultural property has been exported from an occupied territory into a contracting party’s jurisdiction. The UK was one of the original signatories to the Convention but did not initially ratify it on the basis that the provisions were not effective enough.

A Second Protocol was introduced in 1999 (and came into force in 2004). The Second Protocol was far more detailed than the First and provided much-needed clarification on contracting parties’ obligations under the Convention. The UK government announced its commitment to ratifying the Convention and Protocols in 2004 but has since failed to find parliamentary time to consider the domestic legislation required to give effect to the regime.

During a debate in the House of Lords on 14 January this year, it was acknowledged that recent events including the destruction of cultural property in Iraq and Syria (not least the deliberate destruction of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra by Islamic State) had given a renewed sense of urgency to the UK ratifying the Convention.

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill

The key provisions in the Bill are as follows:

1. The Bill introduces criminal offences designed to protect cultural property in the event of an armed conflict at home and abroad. These new offences include "a serious breach of the Second Protocol". This offence is committed where a person intentionally carries out an act listed in Article 15(1) of the Second Protocol in the knowledge that the property to which the act relates is cultural property. The acts listed in Article 15(1) are as follows:

(i) making cultural property the object of an attack;
(ii) using cultural property or its immediate surroundings in support of military action;
(iii) extensive destruction or appropriation of cultural property; and 
(iv) theft, pillage or misappropriation of, or acts of vandalism directed against cultural property.

2. The Bill provides that the Blue Shield will be used as an emblem to signify the cultural property protected under the Convention and two Protocols. The Bill also introduces a new offence of unauthorised use of the cultural emblem.

3. The Bill introduces a specific offence of dealing in cultural property that has been illegally exported from occupied territory. It also provides for the property to be seized and returned to the occupied territory after hostility has ceased. These provisions will apply to any property which was unlawfully exported from an occupied territory at any time after 1956 (when the First Protocol came into force). 

4. The Bill makes clear that where cultural property in the UK is being transported for safekeeping during a conflict, it will be immune from seizure.


The introduction of the Bill follows the government’s announcement in January this year that a fund of £30 million would be dedicated to cultural protection.

The Bill had its second reading at the House of Lords on 6 June. It is due to be considered by a Parliamentary Committee today (28 June 2016) before being referred to the House of Commons.



Roland Foord

Roland Foord

T:  +44 20 7809 2315 M:  Email Roland | Vcard Office:  London

Danielle Maddox

Danielle Maddox
Senior associate

T:  +44 20 7809 2180 M:  Email Danielle | Vcard Office:  London