In December 2016, with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the J. Paul Getty Trust convened a meeting at the British Academy, London, to discuss an international framework for the protection of cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict. Our timing was compelled by the purposeful destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, and by the recent conviction of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi by the International Criminal Court for the war crime of attacking historic and religious buildings in Timbuktu.

Three months later, in March 2017, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2347, which condemned the “unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, and the looting of cultural property in the event of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups and the attempt to deny historical roots and cultural diversity in this context can fuel and exacerbate conflict and hamper post-conflict national reconciliation.” The resolution gave formal, international attention to the protection of cultural heritage and its links to cultural cleansing.

Then, in October 2017, with Thomas G. Weiss and at the invitation of Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, I spoke at a meeting at UN headquarters in New York on the issue of “Protecting Cultural Heritage from Terrorism and Mass Atrocities: Links and Common Responsibilities.” The meeting was hosted by, among others, Angelino Alfano, minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Italy; Frederica Mogherini, high representative from the European Union; Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO; and Simon Adams. The consensus of the meeting was that cultural heritage is worthy of protection, not only because it represents the rich and diverse legacy of human artistic and engineering ingenuity, but also because it is intertwined with the very survival of a people as a source of collective identity and the revitalization of civil society and economic vitality postconflict.

All of this inspired the launch of the J. Paul Getty Trust Occasional Papers in Cultural Heritage Policy. This paper, the first in the series, addresses the threats to cultural heritage in armed conflict zones and the connection between cultural heritage and cultural cleansing, mass atrocities, and the destruction of cultural heritage.

This publication has been funded by the President’s International Council, J. Paul Getty Trust. Our thanks go to the authors, Thomas G. Weiss and Nina Connelly, and to the working group with whom we have been discussing these questions for more than a year, especially Simon Adams, Lloyd Axworthy, Vishakha Desai, Hugh Eakin, Karl Eikenberry, Jonathan Fanton, Richard Goldstone, Sunil Khilnani, Edward C. Luck, Luis Monreal, and Tim Whalen.

  • James CunoPresident and CEOJ. Paul Getty Trust