In recent years, threats to the world’s cultural heritage have become increasingly brazen. Non-state armed groups, often advocating some variant of violent extremism, have sought to destroy some of the world’s most cherished antiquities, whether in Syria, Mali, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The international reaction has been energetic but scattered. As James Cuno has underscored, what has been missing is “a broad legal and diplomatic framework that draws upon precedents to which the international community is committed.” So in late 2016 the J. Paul Getty Trust, in collaboration with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, opened an inquiry into possible international frameworks for the protection of cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict. This is a timely initiative given strategic shifts both in the nature of the threat and in the scope of the response. The threat to cultural heritage is emerging as a first-tier challenge to the established international order, yet it has been treated until now as a second- or third-tier policy priority. Unless this gap is narrowed, efforts to protect cultural heritage against these growing threats will fall tragically short.

This paper, the second in the Getty’s Occasional Papers in Cultural Heritage Policy, contends that the first step is to develop a conceptual framework for meeting the challenge of protecting cultural heritage that will provide a context in which an international consensus on a more vigorous policy response can be forged. How such a challenge to public order is framed can matter a great deal to the prospects of developing sensible, practical, and timely responses at the local, national, regional, and global levels. It makes an enormous difference whether this is seen chiefly as a problem of law, accountability, security, counterterrorism, or atrocity prevention—the five lenses employed most extensively to date. This paper also introduces cultural genocide as an intriguing, if problematic, sixth possible way to frame the policy challenge. The ultimate goal, though it is well beyond the ambitions of this work, would be to articulate an international strategy that draws on elements of all six approaches and that could command broad international legitimacy and authority.

Before opening this inquiry into framing, two observations are worth recording. One, there is remarkably little international support or sympathy for attacks on the world’s cultural heritage. They are properly understood to be assaults on shared values by groups that seek to undermine governments, the inter-state system, and the established norms and institutions on which they depend. Two, nevertheless, the search for a coherent response has been largely elusive. It has been difficult for states to agree on or to mount an effective, coherent, and sustained protection campaign. Though media coverage and the courageous testimonies of those who have sought to preserve this heritage have brought wide attention to the issue, the international community still has not converged on a legal, political, or institutional framework for pursuing effective protection efforts. Policy actions have been sporadic, even hesitant. As in other areas of public policy, practical or operational shortfalls often stem from the lack of convergence on larger principles, concepts, and strategy—all things that flow from a shared framing or understanding of the challenges at hand. These core elements remain unsettled, this paper suggests, in part because of underlying political questions that have been insufficiently examined since the initial discussions of cultural genocide seven decades ago.

This paper has two purposes and two corresponding sections. The first section addresses the matter of framing or of selecting which policy lens or lenses through which to view the threats to cultural protection. (The narrative uses the terms “frames” and “lenses” interchangeably.) It addresses briefly the five lenses, noted above, that have already been considered. The second section focuses on the notion of cultural genocide and considers how it might, or might not, be applicable to contemporary policy dilemmas.

Section 1 opens with a brief explanation of why the framing of the nature of policy challenges is—to those who make and carry out policy choices—much more than a labeling exercise. Framing a policy issue has lasting implications for which actors, institutions, stakeholders, and policy tools are likely to be invoked. It influences the setting of priorities and helps shape perceptions about how collective action dilemmas should be resolved, that is, who has the authority and responsibility to act. The section introduces—rather quickly—the five lenses that have been employed in the realm of cultural heritage protection. While each has some merit, the very range of frames already utilized illustrates the difficulty of finding the perfect fit.

Section 2 lays out the origins and initial conception of cultural genocide as developed by Raphael Lemkin in the 1930s and early 1940s. It then turns to the political dynamics that shaped and ultimately frustrated efforts to include the cultural dimensions of genocide in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The political divisions apparent in those debates have never fully healed. They are still applicable to current attempts to add further legal or policy restraints to the destruction of cultural heritage. Section 2 then considers the mini-revival of the term “cultural genocide” in the context of the rights of indigenous peoples and how that might affect its utility for the broader protection of cultural heritage.

In conclusion, the paper addresses the balance sheet regarding the political viability and practical applicability of the concept of cultural genocide to the framing of the quest to protect the world’s cultural heritage from the non-state actors who threaten it. It calls for an eclectic approach that utilizes the most relevant features offered by all six lenses, with their distinct but interrelated features, rather than the selection of a single frame for public policy.

This is not an advocacy tract for the revival of the notion of cultural genocide. Because it has never been codified, cultural genocide has come to mean quite different things to different people. This is both an asset and a liability. The analysis weighs the pros and cons of employing cultural genocide as a possible lens for viewing the legal and political challenges of protecting the world’s cultural heritage. It draws attention both to the readily apparent disadvantages of adopting such a perspective and to the subtler ways in which considering such a lens could bring fresh insights to the quest for a more effective strategy for countering assaults on cultural heritage. Adding the label “cultural genocide” to such acts is certainly not the answer, but assessing the appropriateness of such an approach may suggest a series of questions from the realm of international politics that have received too little attention in the international dialogue to date.