The first convention dedicated exclusively to the protection of cultural property in times of war, the ‘Roerich Pact’ (15 April 1935), began as a private initiative by Nicholas Roerich, a Russian artist born on October 9, 1874, in St. Petersburg, whose passion for the protection of cultural property was sparked by the neglect of ancient monuments he witnessed during a visit to Russia in 1903-1904. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1904 he began the development of proposals for an international pact for the protection of educational, scientific and artistic institutions and missions.
With the Red Cross as his model, Roerich proposed a treaty for the protection of cultural property during times of both war and peace. It was only in 1933, however, that the Seventh International Conference of American States recommended the adoption of the Roerich Pact. Roerich also suggested that a flag, which he called the ‘Banner of Peace’, be flown over all places under the protection of the pact. The design of the Banner shows three spheres surrounded by a circle, all in magenta, on a white background. There are many interpretations of this symbol, but most often the three spheres are regarded as representative of the three most important aspects of Culture: Religion, Art, and Science. The symbol occurs in many of Roerich’s paintings, most notably Madonna Oriflamma, in which Woman is depicted as the carrier and defender of the Banner.
A movement based on the Roerich Pact, called Pax Cultura, embodies Roerich’s vision for humanity. The Roerich Pact stipulated that historic monuments, museums, scientific, artistic, educational and cultural institutions have neutral status and that the personnel of those institutions should be “respected and protected,” in the same manner as medical personnel or other humanitarian actors in times of war. The concept of military necessity is incorporated in Article 5, which stipulates that the protections of the pact shall cease if the objects of the treaty are used “for military purposes.” The organization designated to administer lists of protected institutions and monuments was the Pan-American Union.
The Roerich Pact was signed by representatives of twenty-one American governments and the Banner of Peace was adopted as the official symbol of cultural protection on 15 April 1935. The treaty is still in effect across all of North America and in most countries of Central and South America. In fact, Article 36.2 of the 1954 Hague Convention explicitly states that for Powers that are bound by the Roerich Pact and are also Parties to the 1954 Convention, the latter Convention does not replace the Roerich Pact but is supplementary to it.
Additional information on Nicholas Roerich and the Roerich Pact.