Cultural heritage is a complex concept that encompasses many different types of evidence of human creativity and expression. It includes artifacts, monuments, historic buildings and places of worship, underwater heritage and landscapes, among others.
The term “cultural heritage” can be defined as ‘the values, knowledge, skills and the instruments, objects, artefacts or cultural spaces that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their culture’ (UNESCO 2003). Loss of these cultural assets is a major concern worldwide.
The term cultural heritage refers to the ways of life developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values. Often, these are expressed as intangible or tangible culture (UNESCO 2002).
The term can be used to describe both physical and non-physical cultural resources, such as monuments and historical buildings, archaeological sites, underwater cultural heritage, and landscapes that contain important elements of a culture. Cultural heritage is an integral part of societies, enabling them to achieve their social and economic goals.
Intangible Cultural Heritage
Intangible cultural heritage is an integral part of the cultural identity of a community. It is expressed through process, phrases, know-how, abilities – and associated objects and cultural spaces – that people recognize as part of their culture.
In addition, intangible heritage is a source of knowledge and skill that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Its preservation enables humanity to continue its evolution and experience continuity, transformation and transcendence.
Intangible heritage is an essential ingredient for sustainable development and healthy communities. However, it is increasingly threatened by globalisation, migration and economic pressure. In response, UNESCO has adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Physical Cultural Heritage
Objects are a crucial part of the study of cultural history because they provide evidence that demonstrates the importance of human heritage and validates memories. They also convey a sense of place and evoke a sense of belonging.
Physical cultural heritage is defined as movable or immovable objects, sites, structures, groups of structures and natural features and landscapes that have archaeological, historical, architectural, religious, aesthetic or other cultural significance. They can be located in urban or rural settings and may be above or below ground.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (Act) requires all federal environmental assessments to consider the effects of a project on both physical and cultural heritage resources. This includes impacts resulting from a change in the environment, such as alterations to landscapes, soils or water, and any changes that occur as a result of a proposed project.
Issues in the Protection of Cultural Property
The protection of cultural property is a vital element in the safeguarding of the world’s cultural heritage and it must be ensured throughout the entire lifecycle, particularly during times of armed conflict. The destruction of cultural property in a conflict is a serious violation of human rights and can be used to justify violations of the mens rea of genocide or the perpetration of persecution (ICTY 1999, 2011; Lenzerini 2014; Matthes 2015).
While there are many legal instruments protecting cultural property in armed conflicts, some are still outdated and others lack the necessary enforcement mechanisms. These include the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols as well as the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
The international community has long recognized the value of cultural heritage to society, and it is important that it be protected. In particular, it is vital that cultural property is inventoried and stored properly to prevent damage from natural and man-made disasters as well as armed conflict.