The Bosnian and Herzegovinian city of Mostar is known for its cosmopolitan nature. Churches, mosques, and synagogues lay next to each other and diverse groups of peoples walked side by side for centuries under Ottoman, Austrian, and Yugoslav rule. The city developed a unique type of architecture that fused styles from the various traditions that came to Mostar, which still has elements of its Ottoman past in its bazaar and neighborhood layout. The city is dominated by the Ottoman-built bridge which gave Mostar its name, the Stari Most.

Postcard of the Mostar Bridge, 1911
Stari Most in a 1911 Postcard

Since recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stari Most was undoubtedly of great cultural significance for the people of Mostar as well as for the great world. In its 427 year-existence, the Stari Most had witnessed and survived many wars, but the Bosnian War was its untimely doom. On November 8, 1993, Bosnian and Herzegovinian Croatian (HVO) forces under Slobodan Praljak fired a tank repeatedly at the Stari Most. The following day, the bridge collapsed into the Neretva River.

In 2013, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) condemned the destruction of the Stari Most. Its reasoning, however, was not based so much on the destruction of cultural property as it was on the isolation of the Muslims on the right river bank, since the loss of the bridge meant that this community was cut off from access to resources. Although this was the court’s ruling, the prosecution had also primarily argued this point in regards to the Stari Most, even including it in their discussion of the destruction of religious monuments rather than as the standalone destruction of a historic monument. This shortcoming was noted by Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti in his partially dissenting opinion.

Although the physical impact on the community was undoubtedly critical, a major opportunity was lost by not more proactively prosecuting the HVO for the destruction of the bridge. International cultural property law has generally been flagrantly disregarded, resulted in extensive damage to the cultural heritage of countries such as Cambodia and Mali. A strong stance on the destruction of the Stari Most would have sent a message that there are consequences for those who violate international cultural property law.

The importance of protecting cultural heritage in times of war had been recognized in some capacity at least as far back as the Lieber Code in 1863. But statements on the importance of respecting cultural property during war at the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were undermined when the Nazis ruthlessly plundered cultural property from occupied nations during World War II. In the aftermath of World War II, the Hague Convention of 1954 (the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict) was signed. Unlike the previous Hague Conventions, this one was entirely dedicated to the protection of cultural property during wartime.

Yugoslavia ratified the Hague Convention as well as Protocol I of the treaty and the terms continued to apply to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia after their independence. In addition, the Statute of the ICTY directly criminalized the destruction of historic monuments in Article 3(d), one of the most direct codifications of cultural property crimes. Yet this ready framework was not exploited by the ICTY in their deliberations on the Stari Most.

In the Hague Convention of 1954, cultural property is defined in Article 1.

Article 1. For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “cultural property” shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership: (a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history . . .

The Stari Most, with its impressive international recognition including its current spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, qualifies as such a piece of architecture. The Hague Convention further stipulates that cultural property should be protected and respected (Articles 2 and 4). Although there is an exception in cases of military necessity (Article 11.2), the bridge itself had little strategic importance; there were in fact several bridges in Mostar by 1993. But this oldest bridge had symbolic importance for the people of Mostar. Its destruction would not have been exempt, but instead condemnable under the Hague Convention.        

With the help of UNESCO, the Stari Most was restored after the war. Its purpose is to show that violence had not succeeded: Mostar rose again, and its restored bridge would be the symbol of renewal. But although the bridge stands once again, the scars of the past still remain. A substantial blow was inflicted on the local populace that struck at the very identity of the community.

Mostar Bridge (2007) - Ramirez
The New Stari Most in 2007 | Ramirez

Twenty years ago it was Bosnia and Herzegovina, today it is Iraq and Syria. If we do not condemn the destruction of cultural property, the trend will continue. It can be an effective strategy to demoralize one’s opponent or gain financial profits. But if international law is upheld by prosecuting the perpetrators, the consequences will help deter would-be destroyers and looters. The ICTY missed its chance when debating the destruction of the Stari Most. Hopefully in the future the loss of cultural property will trigger more avid prosecution to punish the perpetrators of international cultural property law.