How to Protect the World's Cultural Heritage

January 25, 2018

The J. Paul Getty Trust funds a study by Professor Thomas G. Weiss and doctoral student Nina Connelly.

The ruins of Palmyra, which were attacked by ISIL in 2015

In 2002, the fourth- and fifth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited by the Taliban. In 2015, ISIL attacked the ancient city of Palmyra. News outlets brought the world dramatic pictures and helped to reanimate a question that's been around as long as the phrase, "to the victors go the spoils." How can we protect the world's cultural heritage?

A new analysis by Presidential Professor Thomas G. Weiss (Political Science) and Ph.D. candidate Nina Connelly (Political Science) explores the history, politics, and policies governing the destruction and protection of cultural heritage and seeks a framework for potential solutions. Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones" inaugurates a new series of occasional papers in public policy funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Their analysis builds on the principle, codified by the United Nations, that countries have a "responsibility to protect" (R2P) people from mass atrocities, which Weiss, an expert on the U.N., helped develop. He and Connelly argue that the responsibilities of "prevention, reaction, rebuilding" provide an appropriate framework to design policies to protect monuments and sites whose value can be described as cultural heritage.
Weiss' co-author Connelly has collaborated with him on other published research and is a research associate at the GC's Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. She said that this paper gave her an opportunity to apply her research about the United Nations, the history of humanitarian intervention, and trends in international development to the protection of cultural heritage.

The inventory of heritage that is or could be endangered is mammoth. Who gets to determine what is valuable and should be protected, Weiss says, involves unusual allies. The usual North-South political waters are muddied because such individual industrialized countries as Italy and Greece share many views with Syria and China about protecting their rich cultural heritages. Meanwhile, international bodies like the U.N. Security Council are weighing in actively, thereby raising the visibility of this issue.
Weiss is confident that continued attention will be paid to this issue because of the Getty's financial support and deep interest, given its renowned museum and encyclopedic collection. As a result, this paper is "immediately in the public domain." Weiss added that Getty's interest was a real plus -- for instance, none of his other publishers had invested in a full-page ad in The New York Review of Books. Connelly adds that the draft report had been featured at a high-level meeting at U.N. headquarters where it was well received, and that, "more countries have recently signed on to existing international legal tools to protect cultural heritage."

The authors believe that progress on this issue will require a multi-year effort, perhaps beginning with an independent commission whose members would represent the world's major geographical regions and a wide array of professionals from museum officials to social scientists, from military officers to international lawyers. Weiss and Connelly conclude that "the moment seems propitious" to move ahead because "the protection of people and protection of culture are inseparable."