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Cultural property v. cultural heritage: A "battle of concepts" in international law?

30-06-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 854, by Manlio Frigo

Although often used interchangeably, the concepts of cultural property and cultural heritage, according to the author of this article, are not identical in substance. The matter is not one of mere terminology but has legal ramifications due to the clash of different legal systems from which the respective concepts originate. This article shows some of the compatibility problems encountered when using them in international practice concerning the protection of cultural property.


Manlio Frigo
Professor of European Union and international law, Università degli Studi di Milano. 

The wide range of activities throughout the world and especially the proliferation of international conventions on cultural cooperation, with particular reference to protection,have revealed a marked tendency to use, sometimes indiscriminately, concepts such as " cultural property " and " cultural heritage " . Yet these concepts are by no means identical, either terminologically or legally. It would probably be easier to draw a clear dividing line between the narrower concept of " property " , which has been defined in legal terms, and the other, broader, concept of " heritage " , if legal categories which have been elaborated in the civil law systems of continental European countries could be used. The task is made somewhat more difficult, however, by the fact that the relevant international conventions refer – in the English-language originals – to " cultural property " and " cultural heritage " . The use of this terminologyposes problems in other languages because,rather than being merely a question of translation, itgives rise above all to a conflict between different l egal traditions underlying these concepts. The purpose of the present article is to draw attention to several compatibility problems that are due to the necessity in international practice to use concepts which cannot be translated into another official language with absolute precision, since the legal systems concerned themselves differ.


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