The UK will commit to the protection of cultural sites, as the threat of destruction and looting by the Islamic State group (IS) intensifies.
“The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its very identity,” said Culture Minister John Whittingdale.
Whittingdale revealed that the British government will sign up to the 1954 Hague Convention, which was set up to protect cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.
More than 115 countries and all United Nations Security Council members – except the United Kingdom – have already signed up to the agreement to ensure nations and armies would not target cultural treasures.
“The recent cultural destruction in Syria and Iraq has been devastating,” said Whittingdale. “These countries contain some of the world’s most important historical monuments and artefacts which are now at risk as a result of the ongoing conflict.”
The British government will also create a fund to help with the recovery of monuments at risk from IS.
A summit in September will co-ordinate responses to the threat to ancient sites in Iraq and Syria, including Palmyra.
Fears intensified for Palmyra, Syria’s Unesco World Heritage site, after IS fighters laid landmines around the spectacular ancient ruins on Monday.
Famed for its extensive and well-preserved ruins, Palmyra has been described by Unesco as of “outstanding universal value”.
But the city’s fall prompted international concern about the fate of the heritage site.
IS captured Palmyra on May 21 and has heavily mined its territory in other locations to make it more difficult to recapture.
Before it was overrun, the head of the UN cultural body urged that the ruins be spared, saying they were “an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people, and the world”.
IS has released several videos documenting its destruction of heritage sites, not only in Syria but also Iraq, including the Mosul museum and Nimrud.
In its extreme interpretation of Islam, statues, idols and shrines amount to recognising objects of worship other than God – and must be destroyed.
“The wanton destruction in Syria and Iraq that has already taken place is inflicting even further suffering on countries undergoing the worst humanitarian crisis of a generation,” Whittingdale said.
The plans have been backed by UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who said “the destruction of cultural property in conflict is a global tragedy”.
“The ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention demonstrates the UK’s determination to protect heritage worldwide. In announcing new legislation to take this forward, we send a clear signal to those who threaten cultural assets: your crimes will not go unpunished.”