Peter Stone fell into his job as protector of the world’s cultural heritage: in 2003 the Newcastle University academic, who is Unesco Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace, was asked by the UK’s Ministry of Defence if he would act as an adviser to help it identify archaeological heritage in Iraq. Six weeks later, the British army moved in. “Cultural property – not only archaeological sites but historic buildings – is often the last thing to be thought about,” says Stone. The destruction or theft of cultural items often causes diplomatic headaches: the UK is still dealing with the consequences of the Earl of Elgin’s removal of sculptures from the Parthenon more than 200 years ago.
Culture has long been an afterthought in war: the Monuments Men, a ragtag group of 345 curators, art historians, artists and teachers from 13 countries, spent much of the Second World War scurrying across frontlines trying to prevent culturally important items from being stolen or destroyed. In all about five million items were saved. Postwar the UN drew up the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. It required signatories to establish a unit within the military, responsible for ensuring that armies respected artworks and buildings, even in wartime. About 130 countries have since ratified the convention and some, including the Netherlands and Austria, set up their own units of monuments men in their armed forces.
Yet the UK was not a signatory until December 2017; it took Stone 15 years of lobbying successive governments to get the law passed. “You could argue it’s 60-odd years too late,” he says. “But it’s better late than never.” Work to muster the UK’s unit of monuments men, a band of 15 to 20 reserve officers with skills in archaeology, art history and architecture, will begin this year.
Arguably, such a unit has never been more important: though in retreat, Isis has had a ruinous impact. At least 40 significant sites have been looted or destroyed. The new unit will help prevent further damage by terrorist groups and warlords, and will stress the importance of minimising “collateral damage” by soldiers. “A community’s collective memory is encapsulated in its cultural heritage,” says Stone. “If we lose that, we destabilise the community.”
If Canada legalises marijuana, the country might find itself in the diplomatic weeds. As a signatory to many international conventions prohibiting the production, sale and possession of illicit drugs, Canada must enforce the same restrictions as everyone else. Breaking the treaty could cause a sticky situation. “[It would] undermine our legitimacy to speak up when countries break treaties,” says Steven J Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University. “For example, we certainly care if other countries break treaties governing human rights.”
Some bilateral partnerships make sense: the US’s special relationship with the UK; Portugal and Brazil’s enduring alliance; the Trans-Tasman bond between Australia and New Zealand. Yet even nations that seemingly don’t share much in terms of ideological affinity can still build close ties over mutual economic, political or military interests. And it’s arguably the unexpected bonds between countries that reveal real diplomatic chops. Here are three of the more surprising special relationships.
Israel and India
The two countries signed a host of defence, agriculture and aviation deals this January, making India Israel’s largest market for military exports. Their bond has been growing ever since India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992.
Finland and Namibia
Thanks to Finland’s missionaries to Africa, the Nordic country has a tight relationship with Namibia that has been solidifying for the past 140 years. Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari also helped support the country during its push for independence (achieved in 1990). A small but growing trade relationship has benefitted both countries.
Turkey and South Korea
In 1949, Turkey recognised the Republic of Korea as an independent state (and subsequently fought in the Korean War, which earned Turks the nickname “blood brothers” in South Korea). Later on the two nations developed parliamentary friendship groups in one another’s National Assemblies.