Rights Rhetoric and Religious Relics

A month or two ago, I wrote a paper for an upcoming Model United Nations conference about protecting and preserving cultural artifacts and landmarks, one of the current priorities of the real United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. But after finishing five other policy statements – on climate change, intellectual property laws, cyberwarfare, disputes over international waters, and sea rescue, respectively – I really dreaded researching this last topic, as I thought it somewhat trivial (not necessarily in itself, but in comparison to so many other international issues.) A few hours into my outlining, I realized I was so wrong.

Protecting cultural artifacts, religious relics, and societal idols, to start, is critical to archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and theologians (among many others); and preserving heritage sites, monuments, landmarks, and ruins is of central concern in cultivating cultural diversity, safeguarding civil history, strengthening disaster risk-reduction strategies, disengaging armed conflicts, and even limiting nuclear proliferation. But this protection and preservation is particularly threatened not just by natural forces (most notably climate change, natural disasters, and flooding), but also by governmental actions and infrastructures (including insufficient international conservation standards, ineffectual domestic sustainable development efforts, environmentally-unfriendly industries, and inadequate institutional capacity-building initiatives), and by individuals (particularly looters, thieves, black market consumers and contributors, and, lately, international terrorists). Like, eight weeks ago, addressing the threat of international terrorism to the protection and preservation of historical sites and objects moved to the forefront of global discussion and debate after a recent series of especially devastating attacks on Iraqi cultural artifacts and landmarks by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In February, for instance, ISIS released a video of some of its extremist militants smashing statutes, shattering pottery, slashing paintings, and overall wreaking havoc in a museum of art and history in Mosul, Iraq.


In the video commentary, one justified the destruction of the artifacts by claiming that they were worthless, illegitimate idols worshipped by “irreligious” people; but, in coupling these activities with this qualification, also essentially admitted to violating the human rights of not just Iraqis in Mosul, or Iraqis in general, but of all of us, to hold property, to participate in cultural life, to freedom from religious persecution, and to the full and unfettered development of the human personality.

Then, just this morning, ISIS leaked another video – this time, of their extremist militants jackhammering, bulldozing, and even blowing up ancient ruins in Nimrud, Iraq that dated back to the 13th century B.C.E.


Following this barbarity, a militant again announced the Islamic State’s purpose: to remove any and all relics of religious idolatry that they considered contradictory to their outright malevolent and nefarious interpretations of Islamic law. But since, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon (and dozens of others in art, archaeology, and diplomacy) have strongly condemned this absolute devastation, called upon the international community to increasingly unite to protect national culture, and demanded urgent responses from regional bodies, Iraqi agencies, and relevant non-governmental organizations.

Thus, when I read Patricia Williams’ arguments and calls to action in “The Pain of Word Bondage” for broadening “the referential range of considered types of rights” in human rights discourse and, in doing so, extending rights to inanimate objects, one of her analogies particularly stood out to me in its relevance to the Islamic State’s actions.

In this eighth chapter of her book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Williams asks us to recall the looting, illicit trading, and illegal transferring of Native American religious and cultural artifacts in the United States, “spurred by the booming international art market and virtually no fear of prosecution.” Though this criminal activity was much smaller-scale, and motivated more by profit than zeal to spread extremist monotheism, its outcome was the same: whether decimating, demolishing, or looting religious sites, and whether destroying, trafficking, trading or selling cultural artifacts, these militants are effectively robbing communities, erasing histories, denying identities, and restricting the collective human understanding, all while aggressively silencing minority voices.

But “one consequence of the broader reconfiguration of rights,” Williams writes, “is to give voice to those people or things that, by virtue of their object relation to a contract, historically have had no voice.” We touched on such a reconfiguration just a little in class last week when we talked about human rights consciousness, and I wholeheartedly support it. Moreover, I think that broadening “the referential range of considered types of rights” to recognize the rights of inanimate objects – or, specifically, cultural artifacts and landmarks – could have incredible implications on the potential criminal prosecutions of the ISIS militants involved in all this destruction and devastation.

However, as Christopher Stone asserted in his essay “Should Trees Have Standing,” and as Williams further expressed in “The Pain of Bondage,” actual attempts to broaden this range are often met with misunderstanding, confusion, fear, ridicule, or some combination of the four. What do you think of it? In light of the sheer extent and brutality of ISIS’ atrocities, should we, as an international community, accord rights to cultural artifacts and landmarks? Or should we collectively refrain from reconsidering and configuring rights discourse (and, in doing so, shy away from “adding to, or even contradicting, the traditional categories of rights recipients” with classifications for inanimate objects)?

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1 Response to Rights Rhetoric and Religious Relics

  1. cindylyon says:

    Wow. Such a well written post. I wish you luck at your Model UN Conference! There is something rather distinct about cultural artifacts and the human experience that makes people want to preserve it. It is also telling, that so many have went to great lengths throughout history to destroy it. Those artifacts are important enough that their removal could lead to the disappearance of an entire people – the end goal of most extremist groups. ISIS is definitely not the first to try and pull this (e.g. Nazi plunder, burning of Alexandria library). I am so glad that there are people striving to not only preserve but combat the destruction of artifacts. There are the only way that people have succeeded in living forever.

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