Students going the extra mile

Standing in defence of cultural heritage in armed conflicts

‘The destruction of cultural property by the Islamic State in Mosul and Palmyra: is International Law the answer?’ is the title of Alessandra Silva’s bachelor’s thesis. During the Dies celebration last February, the 23-year-old Italian received the thesis prize, as one of seventeen winners, for the best bachelor's thesis in 2016. This topped off the successful completion of her bachelor's degree—cum laude—in European Law School at UM's Law Faculty. “To be really honest, I didn’t know that there were awards for students, so I was very surprised when I heard that my thesis was awarded by the university. It was a great honour.”

In her thesis, Alessandra specifically focused on the destruction by the Islamic State (IS) of cultural heritage in the cities of Mosul (Iraq) and Palmyra (Syria), which are known for their many ancient buildings and Roman ruins. “We hear and read daily about the atrocities of IS and know that it’s bad, of course primarily when it comes to human rights, but also when considering the impact on cultural heritage. I was curious why ‘we’, the international community, do nothing to stop it.”

Practical limitations

She left no opportunity untapped and analysed all relevant instruments within international law, including law of war, with the Hague and Geneva conventions. But she also looked at the legality of the use of violence in international law, and non-binding legal instruments such as the UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, and investigated whether they could be utilised in holding IS militants accountable for their actions. “Though there are practical limitations—I can’t imagine an IS warrior saying, ‘I've destroyed something, arrest me’—, I learned that the root of the problem is not the lack of legislation but the unwillingness of states to transfer some of their sovereignty to international institutions, and to actually enforce the legislation.”

Frustrating outcome

As a law student, Alessandra finds this outcome very frustrating: “We don’t need new legislation, which you might think at first. There are plenty of perfectly good tools that states can use to protect heritage, but simply don’t, because of various political and economic interests. The problem is not the law but the politics.” She also finds that the importance of cultural heritage is often not stressed enough. “Of course, in a war situation, there are more urgent priorities, but I think that more attention should be given to the protection of cultural heritage. Heritage contains the soul of a country, a population, which we have to cherish. Without history, we forget who we are and can’t continue to improve ourselves as humanity.”

Familiarisation with Islam

In her thesis, three of her major interests came together: law, art and Islam. “I was accepted into the MaRBLe excellence programme—a programme that I would recommend to anyone because of the very good guidance you receive—for the Art and Law project, which started in February 2016. My thesis was part of this, so I knew the themes would be art and law.” During her secondary school, she spent a year with a Muslim family in India for an exchange programme that she was able to do because of her excellent grades. “Back then, I experienced Islam up close and know that the claims of IS soldiers, who say that they follow the Prophet Muhammad's rules, are false. Also, the Islamophobia that we see in Europe and the rest of the world is completely unjustified and unfounded, because it has no logical connection with what Islam stands for.”

Alessandra, who is currently busy with her master's programme in International Laws, thought it was important to write about something that really interests her and at the same time wanted to make a positive contribution to society. “I’ve had that feeling since I was really young. I want to help make things better. I’m not under the illusion that my research will be read by high-ranking government officials, but if it’s even read by a teacher, another academic, or someone who can make use of it, I’ll be happy.” She suspects that this is part of the reason for her receiving the thesis award: “I believed every word I wrote and was really passionate about it.”


What will the future bring for her? If it had been up to her grandfather, she would become a judge, something he made her promise at the age of four. But the academic world beckons: “I’ve always been very curious and have an enormous hunger for knowledge and learning. I used to say all the time, ‘If I were rich, I’d spend my time studying: psychology, chemistry, literature’. At one point, I found out that something similar exists; doing research and getting paid for it.” After having gained some practical experience, she would not mind eventually returning to Maastricht to do a PhD. “There’s a unique atmosphere here: it’s a small world, an ideal city for students, I have friends here from different countries, I’m never alone and you know the professors by name. You won’t easily find that somewhere else. It’s really an environment I’d love to work in.” What does her grandfather think about it? “I’m the second person on my father’s side of the family who has studied at university, so he’s especially proud!”

Dunja Bajic