The call for protecting cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict has become increasingly visible on the international public policy agenda, yet governments and citizens have typically limited their responses to deploring such destruction while doing little to prevent it from happening. Some observers see this inaction as playing into the hands of those extremists who are benefiting most directly from the destruction. Something analogous applied to those who murdered and abused civilians in the armed conflicts of the 1990s, until the sea change resulting from a series of humanitarian interventions, the work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and its 2001 report and accompanying research volume.

A thoughtful journalist working on these issues, Hugh Eakin, wrote in 2015, “While the United Nations has adopted the ‘responsibility to protect’ [R2P] doctrine, to allow for international intervention to stop imminent crimes of war or genocide, no such parallel principle has been introduced for cultural heritage.” The R2P analogy intuitively makes sense for four reasons. First, the original three-part conceptual framework for the responsibility for human protection formulated by ICISS—prevention, reaction, rebuilding—employs the same standard vocabulary frequently applied to concerns about the protection of cultural heritage in war zones. Second, the reformulation of the R2P framework after the UN’s 2005 World Summit can also be applied to the protection of cultural heritage. It relies on three pillars put forward by then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon: the primary responsibility of the state for protection, the international responsibility to fortify that state capacity, and the international responsibility to respond in cases of egregious failure. Third, the major obstacle facing action for the protection of people and heritage is familiar to all students of world politics: state sovereignty. Fourth, the protection of people and the protection of culture are inseparable; cultural heritage plays an important role in the restoration of civil society and the revitalization of local economies postconflict. In any case, there is no need for a hierarchy of protection because the choice between the two is false, just as a choice between people and the natural environment is false. Air, water, and culture are essential for life.

Based on these factors, the J. Paul Getty Trust joined forces with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to organize a brainstorming discussion in London in December 2016. Since then, the Getty Trust has convened several working sessions to refine further the results of the London meeting. This document attempts to pull together the various threads from those conversations and subsequent research in order to spell out succinctly the issues that affect either pursuing a new norm or building on existing international legal and normative tools. The terrain is fraught and complex, the political and institutional perspectives wide-ranging and conflicted. This publication is an initial foray and not a final attack on the topic. Its five chapters try to do the impossible in a brief space: summarize the problem; outline new and old elements in the current debate; map the key debates in the politics of cultural protection; spell out options for international public policy with lessons drawn from the R2P process; and indicate a possible way to advance the consideration of the challenge of protecting cultural heritage in armed conflicts.