Letter: Stop the countryside becoming a military casualty

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Your report on the serious increase in damage to archaeological and natural heritage areas of national importance on Salisbury Plain (29 April) shows that there needs to be a fundamental review of the use of important and sensitive areas for military training.

It is now almost two decades since these questions were last officially addressed in any serious way. This was Baroness Sharp's public inquiry into the renewal of the Ministry of Defence's leases over important areas of the Dartmoor National Park. In my evidence to the inquiry I pointed out that commanders of both an invading Warsaw Pact force and the defending British forces would be guilty of war crimes under the Hague Conventions of 1907 and 1954 if either attempted to use heavy weapons over important prehistoric landscapes, such as those in parts of Salisbury Plain or Dartmoor. (Today one can add the 1977 Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions in further support of this contention.)

How, I asked the Ministry of Defence, could it be permissible for such important archaeological areas to be used for simulated tank and artillery battles 200 or more days a year when the same officers could face imprisonment for war crimes should they carry out the same activities in the same location in wartime? My point was summarised briefly in the Sharp report, but needless to say there was no response to it from the MoD.

Since the Sharp inquiry reported, the UK has ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention. In the UK the emphasis so far has been on pressing nominations to the World Heritage List (not least, a cynic might argue, because of the value of World Heritage sites to the promotion of tourism). However, an arguably far more important provision of the Convention is the obligation of states to establish legal and practical arrangements aimed at safeguarding all nationally important areas and sites of both historic and natural heritage importance, not just a country's dozen or so World Heritage Sites.

The scale of the now rapidly growing military misuse and destruction of some of the country's most important archaeological and ecological localities raises fundamental questions about this country's commitment to its declared international obligations under the World Heritage Convention.

Yours sincerely,

PATRICK J. BOYLAN

Vice-President

International Council of Museums

Knebworth, Hertfordshire

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