We have been spared the recent memory of global wars, such as the First World War, but armed conflict on a national or regional scale and sectarianism continues uninterrupted by the efforts of international politics and undeterred by legal protections.
In March 2003 the United States and a Coalition of nations began the Iraq War (Eck and Gerstenblith 2004:469-470). The Coalition avoided targeting cultural sites and moments, to comply with the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, but totally failed to prevent the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad from being looted (Emberling 2008:7). Journalists, who were embedded within the Coalition forces, created a storm of condemnation of their failure to protect the wealth of cultural heritage contained within the museum (Bogdanos 2005:479). Happily, the looting was significantly less than reported and the journalistic hyperbole provoked discussion and activity among archaeologists to redefine our ethical responsibilities for the protection of institutions, sites and artefacts (which I shall refer to collectively as heritage) in war zones. The international communities’ reaction, less than a month later, was the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 which applied international legislation for the safe return of cultural property illegally removed from Iraq (UN 2003).
The Iraq War, like many recent conflicts, raises twin dilemmas for archaeologists. Firstly, the devastation to Iraq and its cultural heritage by two wars and their aftermath forces archaeologists to ask what are our ethical responsibilities in regard to the protection of sites and artefacts in war zones? Secondly, despite the general public and the archaeological communities’ outrage and the United Nations springing into action with additional legislation, the looting of sites throughout Iraq continues to be fuelled by the constant demand for heritage artefacts in the global marketplace so why have we failed to provide legal protection for cultural patrimony?
Past and present archaeologists formed the ethics that archaeology exists within and these need regular review, to ensure that they are meeting today’s needs, and adjustment when our individual moral beliefs and conduct differ from them. Of course, as Velasquez et al (2010) say, being “ethical is not the same as doing ‘whatever society accepts’" so in some cases we might be bound to act illegally to be ethical. The ethical dilemma relating to conflict has challenged and divided archaeologists and it has been the subject of extensive academic discussion and literature. It was crisply summarized by the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), of which I am a member, by the task force co-ordinated by Yannis Hamilakis (WAC 2004). They asked three fundamental questions: firstly, should we work with the military?, secondly, does the concern for sites and artefacts override other concerns and responsibility? and...