University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Cities have been targeted since time immemorial, evidenced by the plunder and pillage of ancient cities such as Carthage—one of the most powerful trading and commercial centers from 650 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E.—that was razed to ground by Roman military forces. During the Thirty Years’ War (1614-1648), one of the longest in European history, the city of Magdeburg was sacked by the Imperial Army.

With advancements in military technology, such as artillery bombardment, chemical weapons, and tanks, the world witnessed an unprecedented level of destruction “wrought by men and machines” during the First World War. The destruction of cities, such as Coventry, England and Leuven, Belgium, by Germany, and the shelling of Germany’s Dresden and Berlin by Allied troops, were equally devastating.

‘Urbicide,’ the deliberate destruction of the built environment, during the Second World War became disturbingly commonplace. Leuven, including its downtown comprising important civic and historic buildings, was leveled by German forces. This pattern was replicated in other cities, such that city centers—urban infrastructure and cultural heritage sites—were regularly targeted. The attack on Dresden destroyed or severely damaged 23% of the city’s industrial buildings and at least 50% of its residential building stock. Its historic city center was gutted, killing 25,000 people. But Dresden was “a legitimate military target,” and the attack was no different from established bombing policies, according to the United States Air Force in a 1953 report on Allied bombings. While scrutinizing whether Dresden was a legitimate target or not is beyond the scope of this piece, the case of Dresden raises several important questions about who decides, and what becomes a legitimate target of war related to deliberate destruction of the built environment. Within the context of Dresden and other cities demolished during the Second World War, their destruction also opens avenues for further contestation and conflicts around reconstruction, raising questions about who decides what to reconstruct and rebuild, and what to leave behind.

During the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, combatants intentionally targeted the cultural and religious sites of their opponents, including some on the World Heritage list. On November 9, 1993, Stari Most, the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina that connected the peoples of the ethnically divided city, collapsed after being deliberately targeted by Bosnian Croat forces. While the collapse of the Mostar bridge was perceived as a threat to shared heritage and social cohesion, its reconstruction by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with support from the international community, set a precedent in peacebuilding processes. This effort has shown that shared heritage can be a basis for social cohesion and inclusion in multi-ethnic societies. While decades later the restored bridge stands as one of the finest examples of post-war reconstruction, the effort again raises an important question: In post-conflict settings, who decides what to reconstruct and when?

The destruction of cultural and religious property, including mosques and churches, was listed as a crime alongside human rights violations in the statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. However, the question remains: What type and level of destruction of the built environment is worthy of being tried before an international court?

The destruction of cities in Iraq and Syria, including cultural centers such as Aleppo and Mosul, by ISIL and state forces led to the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017). The resolution emphasizes that “the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage…can fuel and exacerbate conflict and hamper post-conflict national reconciliation, thereby undermining the security, stability, governance, social, economic and cultural development of affected States.” Significantly, the Resolution directly links cultural heritage destruction and insecurity. With images emerging of the scale of the destroyed built environment caused by Russia’s military assault on Ukraine in 2021, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2573, further condemning acts of violence that threaten or harm civilians and critical infrastructure, again reiterating that attacks on the built environment hamper security and stability of the affected states. More recently, images of the destroyed built environment in Gaza are equally disturbing, not to mention the high civilian death toll.

With growing levels of urbanization and blurring of civilian and non-civilian boundaries, cities have become the epicenter of violence, resulting in the shelling of social, economic, physical, and cultural infrastructure, as well as the near complete destruction of neighborhoods. However, after war, the big question that lingers and can delay the transition to peace and reconciliation is that of reconstruction. Reconstruction can open Pandora’s box as new conflicts develop over what to rebuild and when. As Dacia Viejo-Rose argues, when international actors are involved in rebuilding, the focus is often on symbolic sites that have established linkages with the West. The focus on symbolic sites is at the expense of the everyday urban spaces and cultural heritage sites of local repute. Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers must ensure that this is not the case, but that reconstruction efforts value rebuilding everyday spaces and sites of local repute in partnership with local communities.

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Written by Sabine Ameer, Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations at the University of Glasgow.