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International Treaties and Obligations

This web page explains international law and practice on heritage. There are many international documents known by a variety of names. The most commonly used terms are 'conventions', 'recommendations' and 'charters'.

Some of these have legal force; others merely lead by example. Conventions are legal treaties binding on those who sign them. Recommendations are statements of best practice with the backing of the issuing body. Charters have no legal force but recommend best practice and doctrine and can have considerable influence.

The World Heritage Convention is described in more detail on our World Heritage page.

Dawn at Stonehenge with stones silhouetted as the sun's rays create long shadows and shafts of light on the frosty grass in the foreground.
Dawn at Stonehenge, World Heritage Site © Historic England DP149786

The two international governmental bodies most involved with the protection of cultural heritage are UNESCO and the Council of Europe. Both have developed a number of conventions:


Council of Europe

Hague Convention

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954 was adopted as a result of the massive physical destruction suffered during the Second World War. It calls for a system of general and enhanced protection of cultural property in the event of international or non-international armed conflict. The convention was followed by two protocols (1954 and 1999).

The UK signed but felt it could not ratify the Hague Convention in 1954 because of concerns that:

  • It did not provide adequate criminal sanctions
  • Many of the terms were imprecise
  • The special protection regime was too political

These concerns were addressed by the Second Protocol (1999) which put in place clear criminal sanctions, defined the key terms and replaced the special protection regime with an enhanced protection regime.  

In 2004 the UK Government first announced its intention to ratify the convention with significant cross party political support. However existing domestic laws are not sufficient to enable the UK to meet the obligations in full.

In June 2015 the UK Government introduced a new cultural protection fund to support the protection of cultural heritage and the recovery from acts of cultural destruction in countries affected by conflict or at risk of coming under attack for ideological reasons.

In 2017 the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act introduced the necessary legal provisions required to enable the UK to ratify the convention and accede to the protocols.  

The UK formally ratified the Hague Convention and acceded to the protocols in September 2017. It came into force on 12 December 2017. The 2017 Act came into force on the same day.

See DCMS explanatory notes and guidance

St Paul's Cathedral, London. March 1921.
Aerial view of St Paul's Cathedral, London. March 1921


European Landscape Convention

The European Landscape Convention (ELC) is a Council of Europe convention. It's been in force in the UK since 1 March 2007. The ELC promotes protection of landscapes, following the principles of sustainable development. It specifically includes within its scope the coastal waters and territorial seas of its ratifying states.

The ELC recognises the role of landscape as a basic component of cultural heritage and as an important contributor to quality of life. Its management is therefore a legitimate object of public interest. It also requires that landscape policies should be integrated with all areas of government policy.

The ELC defines landscape as: 'an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors'. It also recognises the need for a territorially comprehensive approach, encompassing commonplace and poorly regarded landscapes as well as the rare and special.

The ELC obliges us to engage in understanding and managing our dynamic landscapes and seascapes everywhere, in ways that recognise their diversity and the complex interplays of cultural and natural forces that influence their perception.

Seafronts Project. Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Scroby Sands Windfarm.
Scroby Sands Windfarm, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk © Historic England DP217496
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