“No evolution is possible without the cumulations of Culture. There, where is Culture, is Peace. For after ignorance we reach civilization; then gradually we acquire education; then comes intelligence; then follows refinement and the synthesis opens the gates to high Culture.” Pronounced in 1931, these words of Nicholas Roerich sound equally important today when the world roils with wars, the destruction of cultural heritage, the reign of materialism and absence of fundamental human values. A truly universal man for the all-embracing character of his mission, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) is known to the world as a Russian painter, writer, philosopher, poet, archeologist, ethnographer, lawyer, traveler and diplomat, who gave birth to the system of international heritage protection legislation as we know it today.
Thus, on April 15, 1935, the International Pact for the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions, known as Roerich Pact, was signed in the White House, Washington D.C., by 21 countries of the Pan American Union in the presence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, upon its signature: “This Treaty possesses a spiritual significance far deeper than the text of the instrument itself.” A relatively short text, the Roerich Pact represents the first and still a unique international document, proclaiming absolute precedence of cultural heritage protection over military necessity. Moreover, the treaty provides for the introduction of a distinctive flag to be put on “educational, artistic and scientific institutions, artistic and scientific missions, the personnel, the property and collections of such institutions and missions,” entitling them to have special protection during military conflicts, on behalf of belligerents, governments and peoples of all contracting parties. The flag, designed by Roerich, the true Red Cross for Culture, is known as the Banner of Peace, and it consists of three red spheres surrounded by a red circle, an ancient symbol present in numerous cultures around the world. Among its most significant meanings are that of Religion, Art and Science encompassed by the circle of Culture; or Past, Present and Future encircled by Eternity, whereas another interpretation stands for Love, Beauty and Action encompassed also by Eternity. As Roerich believed, if the Earth was covered by Banners of Peace, no space would be left for war.
The revolutionary ideas of Roerich received enthusiastic support all over the world, with the creation of Roerich Committees, Associations, as well as numerous publications and conferences, where with determination re-echoed his appeal to humanity: “The real peace will be guaranteed only when the nations realize the worthlessness of mutual enmity and strife for destruction. Peace through Culture – we shall never cease reiterating this truth.”
Unfortunately, the international community would need to pass through the disastrous Second World War, and lose innumerable precious creations of human genius, in order to revive the principles announced in the 1930s by Nicholas Roerich. Thus, in 1950, all documentation concerning the Roerich Pact was transferred to the UNESCO. This documentation laid the foundation of the 1954 UNESCO Hague Convention for Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict, whereas the Banner of Peace found its direct reflection in the Blue Shield symbol.
However, a profound legal analysis demonstrates that the Hague Convention unfortunately turned upside-down the main doctrinal pillar of the Roerich Pact - the precedence of cultural property protection over military necessity - granting the decisive priority to the latter. The subsequent First and Second Protocols aimed at overcoming the gaps of the Convention, but being supplementary to it, were not able to remove the precedence of “military necessity” over heritage protection.
Even though the Roerich Pact was not followed in its key principles, its inherent importance spreads well beyond its articles. With his revolutionary ideas, Roerich gave birth to the “culture of cultural protection,” launching an international debate that had resonance all over the world, and lead to the contemporary doctrine of cultural heritage protection legislation. Inculcating the idea of the inviolability of cultural treasures, it remains of absolute importance today, as we witness the cultural heritage of humanity being stolen, vandalized, bombed and irreversibly destroyed: Iraq, Syria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Egypt –the list goes on of today’s destructions, who aim at the elimination and eradication of cultural and national values. “There must be means to educate humanity about the dangers of such disregard for what is most important in our lives and our history, and the Roerich Pact is a great tool for this. It creates a practical framework for dealing with the problem of human destructiveness.” From the first school days, the Pact should teach young generations the nobility and absolute necessity of safeguarding the true values of humanity. It should educate children that this sign of Peace indicates that treasures of mankind are guarded and peace is a value, as “all symbols and tablets of humanity contain one hieroglyph, the sacred prayer – Peace.”
Long before the establishment of the UNESCO, Roerich spoke about the universal character of the world’s cultural heritage and its fundamental peace-making role:
Culture belongs to no one man, group, nation or era. It is the mutual property of all mankind and the heritage of generations. It is the constructive creation of human endeavor. It transcends all obstacles, prejudices and intolerances. It is the highest perception of Beauty and Knowledge. Without Culture there is no truth, no unity, no peace.
Candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, a friend of Rabindranath Tagore, admired by Jawaharlal Nehru, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (known to have kept a bust of Roerich in his own house), Nicholas Roerich was the true prophet of culture, affirming with each action his own credo “Peace through Culture,” and aspiring to make earthly life more sensitive and more beautiful.