Ukraine’s lawmakers have finally ratified an important international document that can help counter Russia’s barbaric and ongoing destruction of places of huge historical and cultural heritage like the Khan’s Palace, or Hansaray, in Bakhchysarai, Crimea.
The bill on ratifying the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1999, was supported by all members of the majority Servant of the People party present, and passed with a healthy 321 votes. Although no national deputies voted against it, the failure of some deputies from other factions who were present to vote at all is baffling, since the only question over this bill should really have been why it took so long.
Russia will doubtless dismiss this and repeat its mantra that “Crimea is a closed subject.” That is not the opinion of the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor, which confirmed in 2016 that Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea constitutes an international armed conflict. Nor is it the position of the United Nations General Assembly or all democratic countries which continue to insist that Crimea is Ukrainian and that the occupation is illegal.
The authors of the bill note that ratification will mean that Ukraine can approach UNESCO for technical assistance in protecting places of cultural heritage and will also provide further instruments for organizing the monitoring and protection of such places on occupied territory.
Elmira Ablyalimova, the former director of the Bakhchysarai Historical, Cultural and Archaeological Museum-Reserve, welcomed ratification of a document which she believes can radically improve the degree of protection of places of cultural heritage. One of the forms of assistance that, according to Article 33 of the Second Protocol, UNESCO can provide is in compiling national inventories of cultural property.
Article 9 of the Second Protocol expressly prohibits “a. any illicit export, other removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property; b. any archaeological excavation, save where this is strictly required to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property; c. any alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property which is intended to conceal or destroy cultural, historical or scientific evidence.” There is also the possibility of enhanced protection as long as the sites are considered “cultural heritage of the greatest importance for humanity.”
Ms. Ablyalimova notes that Article 9 is the only norm in international legal treaties that directly prohibits deliberate alteration of a site to destroy its real historical value. This is not enough in itself, and Ukraine should now introduce legislation to criminalize violations prohibited by the Second Protocol. This will make it possible to hold proper court proceedings and to use these as proof of Russian violations of Ukraine’s cultural heritage on international political and court levels.
It is not clear whether the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai will be given “enhanced protection,” although it certainly ought to be. It was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List back in 2003, although the follow-up work had not been carried out at the time of Russia’s invasion and annexation in 2014. The complex, whose earliest buildings date back to the 16th century, is a site of enormous historical and cultural importance for Crimean Tatars and for Ukraine as a whole. It was originally built as the main residence of the monarchs of the Crimean Khanate – the state of the Crimean Tatar people – and was the political, religious and cultural center of the Crimean Tatar community until the collapse of the Khanate in 1783.
The first sign that Russia was illegally planning so-called “restoration” work came in December 2016 with Russia’s Culture Ministry announcing plans to construct a canopy over the Khan’s Palace. There were warnings from the outset that the ground underneath the planned shell and canopy roof might not withstand the weight of this construction.
The full scale of the danger to the complex came just over a year later, as the first photographs emerged of what this Russian “restoration” was all about. Parts of 16th century walls were found to have been broken off, and authentic stones were left lying about, as though they were rubble. All original tiles were removed and replaced with some Spanish “old-style” and ersatz tiles. It was clear from the careful way the original tiles were being packed (in contrast to other examples of wanton destruction) that they were intended to adorn the roofs of the occupiers’ villas.
Attempts by activists and by lawyer Nikolai Polozov to obtain copies of the documents for this alleged “restoration” were repeatedly rejected. Late in 2018, however, it became clear that a St Petersburg company had also won a tender for the work. The company in question, called Meander, has won a suspicious number of high-cost tenders for supposed “restoration” of many places of cultural heritage currently under Russian occupation. The reason has nothing to do with expertise or experience, and is probably because the suspected real owner was Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
Just over a year ago, in March 2019, Edem Dudakov, the former head of the Crimean Committee on Inter-Ethnic Relations and Deported Peoples, posted video footage showing new and shocking details of the destruction. Ordinary workers could be seen carrying out “excavation” work, around the Big Khan Mosque, the Khan Cemetery and the Stables, without any attempt to record and preserve artifacts found. Mr. Dudakov had no doubt that the Moscow firm that had won the tender for this illegal work was using cheap local labor, without any expertise. training or understanding of the significance of the place they were digging up – with a spade, as though it was a field of potatoes.
This is only one example of the appalling destruction that Russia, as an illegal occupying power, is wreaking on Crimea.