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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, World Heritage Site
Dawn at Stonehenge, World Heritage Site © Historic England

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 and 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 Convention in 1954 on the grounds that the Convention did not provide adequate criminal sanctions, that many of the terms were imprecise and that 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. The Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill is now before parliament (2016-17).  To follow the Bill’s progress see:

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


European Landscape Convention

The European Landscape Convention (ELC) is a Council of Europe convention and has 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.

Aerial view across Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Aerial view across Yarmouth, Isle of Wight © Historic England/NMR

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.

Windfarm under construction off the Norfolk Coast
Windfarm under construction off the Norfolk Coast © Historic England/NMR
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