LTC Alcala Awarded ASIL’s Baxter Prize

by | Apr 3, 2023

Alcala Receives ASIL Baxter Prize

The American Society of International Law (ASIL) has awarded the 2023 Richard R. Baxter Military Writing Prize to Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Alcala for his paper “Cultural Evolution: Protecting ‘Digital Cultural Property’ in Armed Conflict.” The Baxter Prize is awarded annually by ASIL’s law of armed conflict interest group, the Lieber Society, in recognition of scholarship that “significantly enhances the understanding and implementation of the law of war (also known as international humanitarian law, IHL).” LTC Alcala’s winning article was originally published in the International Review of the Red Cross in June 2022.

LTC Alcala’s article provides one of the first and most original examinations of States’ obligation to protect digital cultural property in armed conflict. The Baxter Prize Selection Committee cited LTC Alcala’s fresh approach, new ideas, and rigorous legal analysis in selecting his work for the award.

The article begins by outlining States’ obligation to protect cultural property in armed conflict. This obligation consists of both a duty to safeguard and a duty to respect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. The rules applicable to traditional cultural property, however, do not transfer neatly to digital works because a digital creation—a formulation of bits and bytes—does not exist in the corporeal world in the same way that a physical sculpture, a painting, or a building does. LTC Alcala observes that this conceptual divergence can pose a challenge to armed forces on the battlefield. Digital cultural property remains an elusive concept, he explains, “and for military forces obligated to protect cultural property in armed conflict, uncertainty about the character of digital material will affect the planning and execution of military operations.”

The article includes several proposals for the protection of digital cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Among these suggestions, LTC Alcala proposes the creation of a digital version of the 1954 Hague Cultural Property Convention’s protective emblem. Support for digital protective emblems has gained momentum in recent months. The International Committee for the Red Cross, for example, recently released a report proposing the digitalization of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal emblems. LTC Alcala suggests a distinctive digital identifier for digital cultural property could be added to the 1954 Hague Cultural Property Convention as an additional protective emblem.

LTC Alcala concludes his article by calling on States to “play a more active and decisive role identifying works they consider digital cultural property.” The duty to safeguard cultural property, he argues, “will play an outsize role in the protection of digital forms of cultural property” in future conflicts. He writes, “The protection of cultural property requires not only that States respect cultural property, but also that they take measures to safeguard it in times of peace. Should States fail to safeguard digital cultural property—by identifying relevant works, notifying others of those works, and potentially marking them with a special identifier—the consequences for the world’s cultural heritage in the next armed conflict could be grim.”

LTC Alcala currently serves as Associate Dean for Strategy & Initiatives at West Point and Managing Editor of Articles of War. We hope our readers will congratulate him on this outstanding accomplishment!