Targeted destruction of Ukraine’s culture must stop: UN experts
22 February 2023
GENEVA (22 February 2023) – The deliberate destruction and damage of sites, institutions, and objects of cultural, historical, and religious significance in Ukraine must cease, UN experts* said today. They expressed deep concern at the continued denigration of the history and identity of Ukrainian people as a justification for war and hatred. The experts warned that attacks against Ukrainian culture, history, and language by the Russian Federation may amount to an attempt to erase their identity. They issued the following statement:
“One year on since the escalation of hostilities, numerous sites, institutions, and objects of cultural, historical, and religious significance in Ukraine have been partially or entirely destroyed by military attacks by the Russian Federation. These include memorials and monuments, civilian buildings, museums, theatres, monuments, statues, places of worship, cemeteries, libraries, archives, as well as schools, universities, and hospitals.
The number of cultural properties that have been damaged – when they should have been protected under Article 1 of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – is probably higher than UNESCO’s estimate of more than 240 as of 15 February 2023. Other assessments identified more than 1000 incidents involving cultural infrastructures and heritage sites.
In our communication to the Russian government, we cited several examples of documented destruction of cultural sites, libraries, and places of worship. Properties of this nature must be protected and preserved at all times. We express great concern at the extent of damage and destruction in violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
Reports indicate that some sites were intentionally targeted, including buildings clearly marked as shelters for local residents, including children. The indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on densely populated areas, and the damage caused to civilian infrastructure in the process, are of such magnitude as to suggest a deliberate campaign of destruction.
We are also concerned by the severe targeting of Ukrainian cultural symbols. Cultural resources – such as repositories of Ukrainian literature, museums, and historical archives – are being destroyed, and there is a widespread narrative of demonisation and denigration of Ukrainian culture and identity promoted by Russian officials, along with calls for ideological repression and strict censorship in the political, cultural and educational spheres. Let us be clear: the Ukrainian people have a right to their identity. Nobody can violate this right.
This is particularly true in occupied parts of Ukraine, including Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where efforts are being made to erase local culture, history, and language in cultural and educational institutions and to forcibly replace them with Russian language and with Russian and Soviet history and culture. Ukrainian history books and literature deemed to be “extremist” have been seized from public libraries in cities and towns in the occupied territory of Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv, and Sumy Oblasts and destroyed by the occupying power. The same has been reported about school history manuals in certain cities.
Civil servants, educators and local school directors have been detained for their refusal to implement Russian curriculum and hundreds of teachers from the Russian Federation have been reportedly recruited by the Russian government to work in occupied eastern Ukraine. Many of those who have spoken out against the occupation and the policy of eradicating the identity, language and culture of the Crimean Tatar community have been harassed, threatened, arrested, disappeared, and prosecuted.
Large-scale displacement of people due to the conflict continues to disrupt cultural life in the country. Writers, artists, and cultural workers have been killed and seriously injured, including in attempts to protect cultural assets.
We are deeply concerned that this destruction is preventing and will further hinder the exercise of the human right to enjoy and have access to cultural heritage, including places of worship, by the people of Ukraine, thereby restricting their freedom of religion or belief, as well as their right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and to express their cultural identity.
These persistent attacks undermine many other human rights, including the right to education, and the destruction will have long-lasting effects, undermining prospects of peaceful coexistence, and future post-war recovery efforts.”
The experts have contacted the Russian Government and have not received a reply to their questions to this date.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) and Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected]).
Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts