Saturday, April 13, 2013

What is "Cultural Security?"

What does the phrase "cultural security" mean? How would you define it?
Here are a few examples of usage.
In Australia, the phrase is used when speaking about how modernization threatens to change the way of life of Aborigines. In China, political officials have employed the phrase as policy to guard against the "negative" influence of foreign pop culture. In Africa, leaders have applied the phrase in voicing concerns over the impact of development on local traditions.
It get's more complex when talking about how a community or society might protect its culture abroad as in the global market for antiquities and tribal art. For example, a recent sale of Hopi masks in Paris caused emotional reactions that transcended current cultural property laws. Shared cultural heritage, such as UNESCO World Heritage sites, also expands the meaning of the phrase. When monuments on the World Heritage list are threatened by natural erosion or economic development, cultural security has global significance.
There seems to be a common thread in meaning that "cultural security" is the challenge of preserving cultural identity in the face of modernization and globalization.
But it's no longer quite that neatly defined.
In some cases, property and traditions are deliberately targeted with the intent of undermining or even eliminating a culture. In World War II, Nazi destruction of Slavic heritage and illicit acquisition of art from Jewish collectors are poignant examples. More recently, the demolition of the giant statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan terrorized locals and shocked the world as did the destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. In each case, the destruction of cultural property was related to violence against an ethnicity or religion. In each case, the targeted destruction undermined a sense of security.
As a result, the security of cultural property is now also related to how safe individuals feel, and so the phrase "cultural security" has taken on new meaning. The Director-General of UNESCO has even cast cultural heritage as relevant to international security. Simultaneously, a lucrative market for cultural artifacts from emerging nations attracts the attention of organized crime and, thereby, adds a dimension to cultural security.
The expanding meaning of the phrase suggests that culture will play an increasingly important role in global politics, economics, and security.
What do you think "cultural security" will mean in the 21st century?


  1. Depending on notions of “culture” and “security,” definitions of “cultural security” will vary. From the perspective of culture, the term would suggest the preservation or protection of the heritage and values of a group, community, or nation. From the perspective of security, the term would indicate a significance of culture to national, regional, or international security.

    The phrase, “cultural security,” seems to have been in use for about a century. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the phrase first appeared in 1916 and, beginning in 1930, the relative frequency of use started to increase. Relative usage reached a peak in 1944 and then declined through 1951 before assuming a steady increase through 2000.

    In the new millennium, the phrase has appeared as a term in various contexts internationally, and the usage seems to fall into three categories: preservation of an indigenous culture, protection of a national culture, and “power” of a national culture in the global economy.

  2. The increasing power of cultural property in the global economy is readily apparent in art market trends. Collectors’ prize cultural artifacts; while in recent years more questions have been raised regarding legitimate ownership and sale of patrimony, we still see spikes in prices and increased looting in those areas of “hot commodities.”

    Cultural property serves as more than just economic currency: it is apparent that cultural heritage also is a form of political currency and of collateral. Nations—Greece for one, Turkey for another—are using cultural property as leverage. For example, a nation seeking and gaining the repatriation of its cultural patrimony is, to an extent, establishing/asserting political power.

    In addition, it is ever more apparent that insurgent groups specifically target cultural property. As mentioned, the destruction of the shrines in Timbuktu is a prevalent example.

    Another factor to consider in light of our recent sporadic weather trends is how we define “cultural security” in terms of natural threats: How do we protect world heritage in the face of our rapidly changing climate?

    1. Thanks for the insights. The point about environmental threats to cultural property is well taken. I appreciate the distinction between the economic and political value of cultural property, and use of the word "currency" echos an article in Journal of Art Crime.

      E. Nemeth, “Plunderer and Protector of Cultural Property” Journal of Art Crime, 1:1, 25-40, June 2009.
      pp. 36-37, Conclusion – “Cultural Currency” of Restitution in Foreign Affairs
      "...The progression from wartime plunder, to peacetime looting, to destruction in political violence has extended the risks from political liability to physical security threats and thereby expanded the context for “cultural currency” from diplomacy to national security...."

  3. Cultural security clearly has several manifestations—as described above, it can appear in the form of threats to local patrimony, targeted destruction of culture, and the protection of culture in conflict zones. In broad strokes, I see an interpretation of cultural security through it’s the various individuals with a stake in cultural resource management. The primary stakeholders within the antiquities sphere, to me, would be local residents, dealers, auction houses, and national and international governments. Going from this micro to macro perspective, we can evaluate the notion of security at each level.

    For local residents, cultural security could refer to both threats to local patrimony and the destruction of local sites to heighten instability. At the local level, rural or regional terrorism can hold greatest implication for a sense of security—evident in the insurgency in Mali( and destruction of the Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan.

    Auction houses can be considered as representative of the economic “stake” in antiquities—an area where illicit trafficking and the networks that profit from trafficking can hold serious implications “cultural security.” At a national level, we see cultural security becoming an issue when we consider the impact of economic policies on the protection of heritage resources. The recent threats to Greek artifacts amid austerity can provide an example of this threat (

    As areas with rich cultural heritage become the sites of conflict, the national and international community begins to hold a stake in the cultural security of the region. The recent conflict in Syria provides ample example of the unintended destruction of archaeological sites and the threats to continued excavations with international stakeholders ( and ).

    1. Thank you for the detailed description of considering cultural security from the micro to macro level. The stakeholders at each level illustrate the interrelation of the security of culture and political and economic considerations, and the examples from Mali, to Greece, to Syria illustrate the geographic scope of "manifestation."

      The examples also indicate that through political violence that targets monuments and the financial incentives for looting, cultural property may serve as a model for the political economy of culture.

  4. The definition of culture is at the heart of acknowledging and understanding cultural security’s role in politics and foreign policy.

    Depending on our definition of culture, securitizing it could involve safeguarding beliefs and traditions against corruption or even extinction; buttressing or shaping practices according to political, economic, or social needs; or actively excluding and condemning anything against what is considered the prevalent system or method.

    Though these serve different purposes – to protect, distinguish, or exclude - each defines what it could mean to be secure or provide security. When culture is defined as property, we seek to protect it; when we have acknowledged its (soft) power to influence we seek to distinguish it; when it threatens to shake the foundation of a society, we seek to exclude it.

    In each circumstance we are guarding the rights of individuals in cities, countries, states, and regions that link to form groups, sects, ethnicities, denominations, and nations. We operate within accepted classifications and parameters to create definitions of culture through identity, politics, economics, and society whose purpose is to set us apart. The only way to ensure respect for each of these identities, each of these definitions of culture, is to accomplish security for all. We come together in cultural security because each of us has a stake in it: its legacy is our future.

    1. Well put, and thank you for opening the discussion by thinking beyond tangible cultural property. The point about culture as identity sharpens the significance of security. Protection of cultural property has already proven challenging and complex as described by previous comments. Lessons learned from protecting physical cultural heritage may prove valuable when considering the security of intangible representations of culture.

  5. I think the whole debate revolves around how the ‘making of history’ influences and shapes History Itself:
    When invaders used to enter a city, they would bring back items of high value back home on the one hand to amplify their victory and to castrate (probably that was not their goal, but this was the result of their act) the cultural/religious/social/ bond and memory of the group.
    I think what applied to the second case, is still valid these days, and is done most of the time intentionally
    I suggest the following matrix for measuring cultural security:
    - Identity of the cultural entity/item) in question: Religious, linguistic, ethnic...
    - Status of the cultural entity/item): recognized, persecuted, active/inactive in political, social, economic sectors...
    - Legal systems (in Theory and PRACTICE): guarantees for cultural properties, minority rights
    - Availability of forums and framework for expressing one’s identity (cultural): media outlets, social media...
    - Early warning mechanisms documenting and circulating cases of violations

    1. Thanks. Measuring cultural security is an interesting idea. The points listed in the matrix seem to identify risk and protection of a cultural property. Such an assessment has application in at least two respects.

      First, discussions on updating the 1954 Hague Convention would benefit from consideration of present-day risk to cultural property. Second, as nations develop systems to track cultural property, the databases could also include fields for each of the points in the "matrix for measuring cultural security."

      Also, the added dimensions of risk and protection would assist nations in determining budgets for cultural heritage and in making the most effective use of funding that is allocated for cultural property.

  6. Eugenie A. SamierApril 26, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    My interests in cultural security (so far) are four-fold:

    1. Examining the issue from an institutional perspective: what social institutions both contribute to producing it and social institutions affected by it? My particular interest is examining the potential cultural security impact on a small Arabian Gulf country by the predominantly Western curriculum that is taught in graduate management and leadership programmes, and the heavy importation by consultants and other expatriates often bringing an unadapted or unmodified practice when creating organisations or restructuring them (in the public sector). It also can affect policy development, and other strategically sensitive areas.
    2. The second dimension is theoretical: what particular theories and research approaches facilitate a cultural security analysis. To some extent a social constructivist approach I think is relevant to the kind of country case I deal with. I have also found that critical theory and post-colonial analysis is useful. I would also argue that a Weberian analysis would be most helpful, but not the truncated and misrepresentational bureaucratic model that is most frequently used – there is a much more complex and larger theory from Weber that is comparative historical-sociological, grounded in value orientation to social action including authority or domination types, and which allows for dealing with many levels of conflict issuing from these on an individual, through to interpersonal, organisational and social institutional level, and can be extended to regional and international differences.
    3. Developing a cultural security analysis for the administrative and leadership field, particularly for public administration and educational administration (higher education) to use in analysing a case study. One feature that differs from many cultural security studies I’ve run across so far that focus on immigration – these have mostly looked at immigration into Western countries – I’m looking through the looking glass into western ‘intellectual’ immigration into the Arabian Gulf.
    4. There are also a number of underlying philosophical and theoretical dimensions to consider: does one approach this from a humanistic philosophical/paradigm perspective? How does one define culture, as noted by others who have posted? There are a number of theories/models possible, but particularly a cultural anthropology model would be more comprehensive and significant I think than many of the organisational culture (functionalist) models that are current.

    1. Thank you for broadening the discussion in not only scope but also approach. Considering cultural security in the context of education and bringing theory into the discussion increases the potential of the project. An identification of those in administrative and leadership positions as potential stakeholders indicates the importance of considering the audience for a definition of cultural security. Then there's the unavoidable question of "What is culture?" The challenge lies in proceeding with a definition of cultural security simultaneous to an evolving definition of culture.

      Cultural property offers a convenient starting point. As an aspect or representation of culture, artworks, antiquities, monuments... provide a model for considering a definition of cultural security. Over the past half-century, domestic and foreign policy on cultural property, the international art market, and destruction of historic structures in armed conflict offer a rich set of data on consideration of culture in the political, economic, and security domains. An examination of international conventions, transnational exchange of art objects, and exploitation of monuments in political and armed conflict provide examples of the initiatives and challenges of safeguarding culture.

  7. Hmm, going to have to reply in sections:

    To me there are many dimensions to cultural security, at multiple levels. It can be viewed in terms of different definitions of either word, of damaging threats, viewed in terms of risks, in terms of the different stakeholders, in terms of the different scales (local / national), and the different types of culture. The following presents some rambling thoughts which I’ve written down in about 40 minutes, so it might not be clear, or coherent, and is probably incomplete!

    “Culture” – I’ve always liked the ICOMOS definition -
    “Cultural Heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values. Cultural Heritage is often expressed as either Intangible or Tangible Cultural Heritage (ICOMOS, 2002).

    Obviously this focusses on cultural heritage, rather than culture more broadly. Broadly speaking, culture can, of course, be anything from the popularity of McDonalds and Starbucks (archaeologically speaking - they are practically competing religions), to this week’s charts, and the fact that acid wash jeggings are currently popular (In Britain). However, I’m not sure that’s what you mean, so I’m only answering with regards to cultural heritage.

    Security is more complicated – I’m taking it to refer to threats and risks to cultural heritage. One of the examples cited earlier in this discussion was the effect of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the effect their destruction had on the security of the people of the valley. An important distinction, to me at least, is whether the people would have felt less secure if anything had been destroyed, or whether it was specifically the buddhas. I would imagine that for most people anything being destroyed in their neighbourhood would make them feel less secure, particularly on that scale. On the other hand, if they felt the destruction of the buddhas affected them personally, similar to the destruction elsewhere of objects associated with particular cultures, such as the destruction of churches in Bosnia. Then clearly the destruction of cultural heritage impacts the security of people as it suggests a threat to the people themselves.

    Security in the sense of cultural heritage is also an issue of ownership and of human rights. Legally speaking, culture is very poorly covered in law. Cultural heritage is not actually a universal human right, although culture is. Culture is included in the Universal declaration of Human Rights - “According to the Article 27 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), established on 16 December 1966, guarantees this right. As interpreted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this encompasses an obligation of preservation and presentation of mankind’s cultural heritage – in other words, a duty to preserve cultural heritage. The duty includes an obligation to protect such heritage from vandalism and theft, as well as a prohibition on its wilful destruction. It is still subject to debate under which circumstances international human rights law prevails over international humanitarian law or Law of War, or vice versa, although in at least one case - a NATO-led International force in Kosovo - International Human Rights Law superseded the Law of War in cultural property protection.”

    Whilst it is becoming more widely accepted that everyone has the right to their culture, there is remarkably little discussion on whether they have the same right to their cultural heritage (I know, I’ve done a lot of research trying to find anything on it). If cultural heritage is not a fundamental human right, then how bothered about it should we be, and how bothered about it do we have the right to be? To continue this, let’s assume that people do have the right to their own heritage (which is my personal view).

    1. Thank you for quoting a definition of "cultural heritage" and for exploring different aspects of "security." Cultural heritage makes for a good starting point in considering the "culture" part of a definition, and the points about the potential relationship between human rights and protection of cultural heritage add to the consideration of "security." If I remember correctly, Turkey recently attempted to apply human rights law as a basis for repatriating cultural property from the British Museum i.e. in securing the national cultural heritage of Turkey.

      I believe that the security of cultural property serves well as a model for broader considerations of "cultural security" that might encompass intangible aspects of cultural heritage as well as contemporary culture. Protection of, and ensuring access to, cultural heritage provides a ready example of cultural security, while the sense of well-being that derives from experiencing contemporary trends in food, clothing, and, of course, art suggests that a definition might capture "culture" and "security" in the broadest sense.

      As a starting point: 1) the tangible nature of cultural property, 2) the history of international conventions for protection during wartime and peacetime, and 3) examples from destruction during armed conflicts and cases for repatriation provide a basis for considering a definition of cultural security that will most likely expand in appreciation of culture and the evolving meaning of security.

  8. Threats / risks –
    Here I define a threat at something which actually damaging a site, whilst risk is something which might affect it, and for which there are different levels of likelihood.

    Part of my work is in monitoring threats to cultural heritage in peacetime, so farming, and development and so on. For example, 88% of sites in a case study area are damaged by farming. At this point we struggle with the interplay of competing rights to culture, even in a secure (ie non-conflict) situation. The people obviously have a right to farm for food, and build houses for a developing population, but the toll on archaeological sites (especially small local sites), which are unmonitored and often unprotected, is very high. In this case the threat to the sites is collateral damage from human action. This is balanced against the threat to people if they are denied enough land etc.

    Massive programs of landscape change are also implemented, such as the creation of dams. This allows extensive irrigation programs which again have a huge effect on archaeological sites and landscapes, and on the natural environment – another form of culture - but allows increased security for people. Yet, once too many dams are built, water levels drop, and security is affected again. For example, Turkey’s dams on the Euphrates are affecting Syria’s water, and the massive amounts of irrigation from pumps are dropping groundwater levels. The system which made them secure is now a problem. It’s almost circular.

    In many cases, heritage is used by both those who are for and against dams. The Hasankeyf Dam in Turkey will flood a large Kurdish area, displacing millions of people. It has been suggested this is deliberate. Equally, the right of the Kurds to their heritage, and the important medieval history of the area is cited as a reason not to dam the area. (Obviously, the massive ethical and financial human cost of displacement is also an essential part of the discussion). Dams are actually a very interesting microcosm of the issues behind threats and culture, and people’s rights to heritage.

    There are also multiple threats from conflict, which I’ve written about extensively. In war, culture of both the people kind and the object kind, takes on multiple dimensions. At its heart, conflict is either about power or ideology (or both), at which point cultural heritage is extremely symbolic. A large part of the fighting in the World Heritage Site of Aleppo is because the Citadel is the symbolic heart of the city, and to hold it is to hold the city. I have many more examples on that. Looting is another obvious threat – and one which brings us into the issue of stakeholders and ownership, which I alluded to above.

    1. Thank you for the distinction of threat and risk.

      The interplay of economic development and securing the study of cultural artifacts illustrates the complexity of cultural security. The case of farming and dams are clear examples, and subsistence looting provides an extreme example of the relationship between cultural and economic security. In each example, the long-term benefits of protecting cultural heritage are compared against the pressing need for economic development.

      The contention between economic and cultural security may also potentially provide a solution. Consideration of cultural security as part of the process of economic development might mitigate unwanted side effects such as the (over)development of dams. Regulations that slow, but do not counter, farming and construction in the interest studying cultural heritage may create opportunities to plan for more sustainable economic development. In particular, local communities might be engaged to participate in the "cultural-heritage phase" of the development process.

      In the case of armed conflict, cultural property can be more naturally perceived as an asset rather than an impediment to security. The value of monuments as symbols of power(control) and ideology provides a compelling example of the role of cultural property in armed conflict. Perhaps the perceived value of historic structures and religious monuments at the local level will encourage greater attention to cultural property in foreign policy and military engagement.

  9. Stakeholders:
    Many Syrians acknowledge their heritage, and say that since it’s theirs, of course they have the right to sell it. Syrian history curriculums often start with the advent of Islam and have about 1 term, if that, or earlier history. They don’t know what they’ve got, and hence see no reason to preserve it. In many cases, people are interested in finding out, and then become active curators of their past. On the other hand, there are competing ideologies at work here of how heritage should be treated. The links looting brings to organized crime are also established and a threat to the security of the people and the objects. Objects are also linked to the sale of weapons, which clearly has a security impact.

    Cultural security can be seen as an issue of competing claims of ownership vs stewardship. Who are the stewards / caretakers of the past, and who are they responsible to? Who are they maintaining the security of our heritage for? The Bamiyan Buddas is a very clear example of this: in the midst of drought and famine (a fact unreported by most media outlets), money was sent for the preservation of the statues. The mantra became ‘people not stones’. (Interesting article on it -

    The ‘ownership’ of the statues in the valley is also contested – the government feel it has economic potential, the stronger Islamic clerics feel it is against Islam, the local people feel it is a part of their heritage, and so on. These social, ideological, and religious tensions form another aspect to security.

    There is certainly an economic aspect to security, locally and internationally. Most tour money in Syria goes (went) to external international tour agencies. In Egypt, on the other hand, in 2008, there were 12.8 million tourists bringing in $11 billion income. The Global Heritage Fund estimate heritage tourism will bring in $100 Billion by 2025. Over 50 global heritage sites today each have annual revenues of over $100 million, up from a fraction of that number 20 years ago. World estimated International tourism to reach one billion in 2012. Certainly International tourism receipts surpassed US$ 1 trillion in 2011 (800 billion euros). This level of money affects local people’s jobs and livelihoods, and the income of nations (and external tour agencies).

    Also, plenty of looting is done to offset starvation and buy fuel in areas where the economy has collapsed and other work is not available.

    The political dimension has already been discussed as well, Turkey being a prime example of flexing her political authority using ‘national’ heritage, and Turkey has been accused in the media of blackmailing other countries. Heritage is a fundamental part many claims made by native populations to reclaim ancestral territories, ancestral objects, and in fact, their ancestors.

    I’m afraid I wrote this pretty quickly, so it’s more a set of jumbled thoughts, rather than anything coherent. I have references for anything you need, or if you want more info on any of it. I hope it helps.

    1. First, thank you for the detailed examples from Syria and for organizing the information in the political-economic-security framework.

      The threats to cultural heritage in Syria certainly amplify the grounds to consider the role, as opposed to purely the liability, of cultural property in political and armed conflict. The progression from the Bamiyan Buddhas (2001), to Iraq (2003), to the Arab Spring (2010), to Mali (2012), to the ongoing destruction and looting in Syria indicates that consideration of cultural heritage has a practical place in security strategies.

      The presented examples illustrate the immediate, short-term, and long-term ramifications for security. Smuggling of antiquities for weapons and the involvement of organized crime do have immediate implications for security. Destruction of historic structures and sites has short-term and ongoing ramifications for security with the compromised potential for revenues from tourism. Finally, looted cultural patrimony creates long-term political risk for "market nations" in the form of claims for repatriation by source nations and a consequent strain on foreign relations.

  10. Probably simplistically - 'cultural security' is the the feeling that connection between oneself and one's culture(modern or heritage) is secure.
    If this is threatened by appropriation of one's culture (e.g. by dealers or looters), invasion thereof (e.g. by tourists) or outright destruction thereof, one feels insecure. Insecurity can arise not only from external impact on one's culture, but from a feeling (if unwelcome) that one's culture is being forgotten or becoming irrelevant.

    I suggest that feelings of cultural INsecurity may stem from senses including ownership of, pride in and/or comfort taken in one's culture - which would be violated in the event of one's culture being removed.

    1. Thank you for adding a psychological dimension to the discussion. Emotional connections to symbols of culture and the role of culture in identity represent significant links between culture and security for the individual. After all, a sense, or feeling, of security is a matter perception.

      How secure individuals feel, in turn, affects national security. For example, feelings of insecurity can cause distractions that may decrease productivity and potentially compromise economic security. Cultural insecurity may also cause animosity towards foreign cultures and thereby influence foreign policy or, in some cases, induce radicalization.

      The potential importance of the psychological dimension of cultural security warrants more research to understand the role of cultural symbols in the sense of security of the individual.

  11. I find the psychological dimension to be fascinating, particularly with regard to international relations. It seems to me that those symbols/sites that play such important roles in cultural identity are a weak spot for each culture: our emotional connections to them make us vulnerable. We have seen countless instances in which cultural property has been specifically targeted during times of armed conflict for this very reason.

    The tie we feel to our national symbols and the pride we take in our cultural identity can be (and are being) manipulated by those wishing to cause harm. Attacks on such symbols strike at the heart of a country/culture. The detrimental impact such attacks have, not only through the destruction of world heritage, but also through the crushing of a culture's pride, cannot be overstated.

    Could the efforts put forth to protect another culture's property help define the relationship between two cultures? Could more concerted efforts to protect foreign nations' cultural property help nurture better international relations?

    1. Interesting. This sounds like a next step. In other words, through international conventions states parties demonstrate an interest in protecting cultural heritage in general, but if a nation were to take a specific interest in protecting the cultural patrimony of a particular nation, then cultural property would become a medium through which to strengthen or build a relationship.

      The bilateral treaties and agreements that nations form as a result of the 1970 UNESCO Convention may be a starting point. While serving to prevent the illicit transfer of cultural property, such agreements might lead to initiatives to protect cultural property within the partnering nation.

    2. I think that's a very valid point in many ways, particularly the effect on identity and pride caused by the destruction of such symbols, but it is a double-edged sword...

      In Syria, for example, and in other Arab region countries, there has been a long tradition of western archaeologists coming in and caring about certain sites / periods, particularly classical sites, without involving the local people as anything beyond basic labour. Foreign countries have invested large amounts of time, money and scholarship in the sites they care about. However, at the local level this is very much perceived as a western concern, even of sites with World Heritage Status. Once security decreases, people understand their ownership of sites, it is 'their' history, but as they have no vested interest in it, looting increases, because they have the right sell 'their' history, and it's easy money.

      Whilst international initiatives to protect heritage would be an excellent point from which to build peace, if they do not have the support of the local people, then it's nothing more than a well-meant but ultimately western colonialist program of preserving the heritage we feel deserves it.

      (As an example, of 421 internationally and locally run archaeological projects in Turkey, 51% focus on classical sites - Fitzpatrick 2012 unpublished)

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