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“Culture isn’t just dead stones and statues; culture is life. Culture is, you know, all the ways in which we move and interact together as peoples.”
In 2005, the United Nations agreed to a new framework called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) aimed at preventing genocide and crimes against humanity. However, this norm neglected to protect cultural heritage explicitly, despite the fact that the destruction of cultural heritage, including intangible heritage such as traditions and religious practices, often goes hand in hand with ethnic cleansing. This dynamic is playing out today in Xinjiang China, home to the ethnic minority Uyghur people.
In this episode, former Getty President Jim Cuno speaks with Simon Adams, president and CEO of the Center for Victims of Torture, and Rachel Harris, expert on Uyghur culture and professor of ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, about the role of the UN in protecting cultural heritage in times of crisis and the current case of the Uyghur people in China. Adams and Harris are contributors to the recent publication Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, edited by Jim Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss and available free of charge from Getty Publications.
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Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
SIMON ADAMS: Culture isn’t just dead stones and statues; culture is life. Culture is, you know, all the ways in which we move and interact together as peoples.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Simon Adams and Rachel Harris about current approaches and issues in cultural heritage protection in conflict zones.
In 2005, the United Nations agreed to a new framework for preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Called the Responsibility to Protect or R2P, this new norm does not explicitly call for the protection of cultural heritage. Yet in times of conflict, cultural heritage continues to be targeted for destruction, particularly in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
I recently spoke with Rachel Harris, expert on Uyghur culture and professor of ethnomusicology at SOAS, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Simon Adams, president and CEO of the Center for Victims of Torture, about the role of the UN in protecting cultural heritage in times of crisis and the current case of the Uyghur people in China. Both Rachel and Simon are contributors to the recent book Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, which can be downloaded free of charge at getty.edu/publications/. This episode is part three of a three-part series with authors of this volume.
Thank you, Simon and Rachel, for speaking with me on this podcast episode. Our book developed from the compelling need to stop, and hopefully prevent, the destruction of cultural heritage, and its links to mass atrocities, which UN member states agreed to at the 2005 World Summit, under the norm of the Responsibility to Protect. Simon, you’ve done a lot of work in this area. Give us a sense of the meaning and legacy of R2P.
ADAMS: Sure. You know, I think that R2P, or the Responsibility to Protect, was kind of the UN’s attempt to deal with the tragic kind of aftermath of genocide in Rwanda and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and an attempt to kind of look at that and to think, “Well, maybe if we can’t fix everything in the world, we can at least respond in a more timely and decisive way when the worst kinds of atrocities happen in the world.”
And so I think it kind of shifted the frame of thought away from the idea that big powers have a right to do what they wanna do to help who they wanna help and ignore who they want to ignore in the world, and the idea that all states and all people in this world have a responsibility to protect one another. So it’s been a defining idea of the last decade. But unfortunately, as with all things to do with the United Nations, implementation is a lot more difficult than simply creating a new norm and putting it into words in a piece of paper.
CUNO: How long as R2P been in existence?
ADAMS: You know, it kind of starts in the aftermath of Rwanda and in the aftermath of Srebrenica, the genocide in Bosnia. But it really doesn’t become a kind of an emerging norm or a, you know, proper, fully-fledged kind of diplomatic idea until after the UN World Summit in 2005, when it’s adopted in the outcome document of that summit. Which means that, you know, 175 heads of state and government subscribe to the idea. And then the very difficult job, as I said, began of actually trying to make it not just rhetoric, but reality.
CUNO: How does it renew itself over time?
ADAMS: Well, I think, it’s a norm of behavior for states. And I think like all great ideas, whether it be human rights or international justice, it’s something that requires political will in order to have an impact in the real world. And so I think the ideas live on. And certainly, live on in the minds and in the words of people around the world who are facing persecution, conflict, and atrocities, and want the international community to do something about it.
But again, the challenge is making sure that there’s consistent implementation of all these norms around human rights, international justice, and the responsibility to protect, wherever people face the threat of the concentration camp or the mass grave or any other kinds of atrocities.
CUNO: We’ve attempted in the podcast and in the book with which the podcast is linked, to associate the destruction of cultural heritage with mass atrocities. Rachel, you’ve been a strong voice against China’s campaign of destruction of the religious heritage of the Turkic Muslim Uyghur peoples. Give us a sense of these cultures and China’s campaigns against them.
RACHEL HARRIS: Well, the Uyghur people, they do live now within China’s borders; but culturally, they’re really Central Asian. They are Muslims. They’re really closer to the Uzbeks. They speak a Turkic language which is much closer to Turkish than it is to Chinese. They live in the oasis cities around the Taklamakan Desert, the Tarim Basin, in the cities of Hotan and Kucha. Those might be familiar to those of you interested in the more kind of ancient Buddhist culture.
But the Uyghurs began to convert to Islam around the tenth century. And that was a kind of Islam that was brought by Sufi teachers, mainly, and they went on to establish these important lineages, especially in the city of Kashgar. And so today, you find the Taklamakan Desert is really dotted with shrines to these Sufi sheikhs, these leaders of the lineages; and also the martyrs who died bringing Islam to the region.
And certainly, up until a few years ago, people would go on pilgrimages to the shrines and would hold big festivals at the shrines.
CUNO: Well, what about the effect of the Chinese government’s control, or increasing control, over the peoples of the area?
HARRIS: So these shrines are now— as far as we know, they are completely bulldozed. They’re gone. And alongside that kind of destruction of built heritage, all kinds of everyday religious practice—praying, fasting, growing a beard—all of these have become a criminal offense over the last five or six years. And beginning then in 2017, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people—estimates reach over 1.8 million—having been sent to what are variously termed reeducation camps or sometimes concentration camps, where they’ve been subject to maltreatment and abuse, and taught that their culture, their language, and their faith are a crime.
CUNO: Simon, how do these campaigns fall within the norm of R2P? And if they do, why can’t the UN prevent their destruction?
ADAMS: Well, I think I would answer that in reverse order, Jim, which is that, you know, as with all things, these require political will. It requires the states of the United Nations, whether that be the UN Security Council, to take action whenever something like this happens. And unfortunately, with China being a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, it has essentially tried to inoculate itself against any kind of international action.
But I think that it has discredited itself. And I think that we’ve seen, over— probably over the last, you know, five, six, seven years, that the issue of the Uyghurs and the issue of Xinjiang has gone from being a kind of a marginal concern that might’ve been of interest to academic scholars like Rachel and human rights activists, and advocates like myself, but wasn’t really known more generally. Whereas I think that that is no longer the case.
People are aware of what’s happening in Xinjiang. It’s had a lot of media attention. People more generally are aware that something very sinister is underway in that part of China, and that there seems to be an ongoing campaign to not just change the design of mosques, but to actually irradicate the cultural traditions that hold the Uyghur people together. And under international law, that would constitute genocide.
CUNO: Now Rachel, you write eloquently about the Mosque Rectification Campaign. What is that, and how does it relate to the larger question of China’s campaign against the increasing number of Uyghurs in Western China?
HARRIS: I mean, there is always such a wide gap between the official narrative and what is actually happening on the ground in Xinjiang.
So in my view, this is really all about territory. The region is strategically significant. It’s rich in resources. It’s a gateway for China’s expanding influence in Asia. So Islam has been a primary target of the campaigns. And they’ve all been presented to the outside world, of course, as ways of countering terrorism, countering Islamic extremism. But really, as Simon is suggesting there, what China’s been trying to do is really to rewrite the history, and of course, the future of the region. And with it, the whole identity of the people who live there. And really, it’s about tying that region more tightly to the Chinese sphere.
So mosque rectification is presented as something to make sure that these structures are safe, they’re earthquake-proof. But really, it was about two things, I think. It was about reducing the overall number of mosques, by knocking them down. And it was also making sure that the remaining mosques didn’t look too foreign—you know, they didn’t look too Middle Eastern. So they removed a lot of minarets and domes. This was really part of a wider campaign to Sinicize Islam. And so under this, really thousands of mosques were damaged or destroyed. Of course, it was all done on a— under a great veil of secrecy, so it’s difficult to get exact figures.
But some of the human rights organizations in the West, or research institutes, have done detailed investigations. They’ve used satellite imagery and testimonies. So the ASPI, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has given a conservative estimate of 16,000 mosques have been damaged or destroyed. That’s about 65% of the total number of mosques in the region.
So I think it is important to understand that this is not just the destruction of the buildings; this is part of the wider campaign of cultural erasure, or indeed, genocide, as many nation states and independent observers have labeled the situation in Xinjiang. It’s not just that the mosques have been destroyed, but also the imam, the religious leaders, have been jailed; the worshippers have been sent for reeducation; and the communities have been uprooted.
I think it’s also significant that it’s not just the shrines and the mosques that have been destroyed; it’s also graveyards. Those are also important sites for religious practice. People go to pray at family graves. But that also has the effect to tying people to the locality. It’s a center for the community. And that is also what is, I think, a target of the campaigns.
CUNO: How easy is it to get into the area to see these things, and to quantify the destruction of mosques, for example?
HARRIS: It’s been extremely difficult. Western journalists have been officially banned. People traveling in the region have been followed, harassed. I myself have not been given visa to China since 2014. So Xi Jinping famously called for walls of iron and nets of steel to go up around the region. And part of that has been the secrecy surrounding all these campaigns, and very strong denials, of course, when these reports come out.
CUNO: Now Simon, how does the UN distinguish between cultural and religious differences in groups of people? And Uyghur people are an example of this.
ADAMS: Well, I’m not sure the UN has a huge amount to say, in terms of the definition of those different things. But I think what we all know is that there is an overlap for many peoples, between culture and religion.
Of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that freedom of belief, freedom of cultural expression are universal human rights. And where those issues kind of converge— And I think, you know, what Rachel’s talking about with the Chinese state is a great example. That is precisely why the Chinese state sees the Uyghurs as a threat, because it sees any expression of culture, any expression of religious difference that is outside of the norm of Chinese state practice, as somehow posing some sort of an existential threat to the continuation of the Chinese state. And in the case of the Uyghurs, it’s clearly decided that that cannot be allowed to stand.
CUNO: Now Rachel, you point out UNESCO’s apparent inability to counter—or as you write in our book, even protest abuses of the heritage system of state partners. What do you mean by that, and how do you see this changing any time soon?
HARRIS: Well, China has a very comprehensive national system for sustaining heritage. It’s huge. It is a huge thing in China. They have systems of research; they have lists at so many different levels; they have programs for revitalization. A lot of money goes into heritage. But fundamentally, everything is done to serve government policy.
It works within soft power initiatives; obviously, within nation building. And the ultimate goal, really, is about upholding the rule of the Chinese Communist party. All this is really very explicit in government legislation. And a lot of it really is directly contrary to UNESCO ideals.
But China is a major player in the international heritage system. It’s a major partner for UNESCO, perhaps particularly in the sphere of intangible cultural heritage. And so it has a very powerful voice. And it aggressively pursues dissenting voices within the cultural sphere, as well as in all other spheres, really. It has an extremely powerful voice across the UN.
So we saw this with the extraordinary circus around Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. And after she’d gone to visit the region, and she came back and gave an official statement which was really couched in the language of China’s governmental views of what was happening in the region. And the Uyghurs living in exile, living outside of the region, they were devastated.
I think they had really hoped, at that point, that the UN would do something. And that was a real moment of loss of hope. But you know, I mean, Michelle Bachelet did finally manage to publish her report. There was a long-awaited UN report on human rights in Xinjiang, much delayed through Chinese pressure. And she did actually slip out that report, literally minutes to midnight, on the day that she was due to step down from her role. And it was strong. It spoke about crimes against humanity.
So that finally did give me some hope. Clearly, to uphold these kind of international principles does take a lot of tenacity and strength. But I think there is possibility to keep pushing. So I am committed to keeping pushing in my own small sphere.
I think, also, that it’s important to look within China. I think ultimately, if there is any hope of the softening of the line from the Chinese government, then that will come from within. Perhaps, as we’ve seen with the protests in China against the COVID lockdowns, there is hope still that the Chinese people can have a voice, that they may mobilize and actually affect government policy in different spheres.
China is not a monolith. There are different voices within government and there are different views, obviously, amongst the Chinese people. So perhaps that is where we should be putting our hope, also.
CUNO: Now Simon, you see a similar development in Myanmar, among the Rohingya people. You close your essay in our book by quoting Irina Bokova, former Director General of UNESCO and an author of our book, by claiming that “it is possible to protect people by protecting culture.” But what do you mean by that?
ADAMS: What I mean by that is, I think that, you know, there’s a traditional view of these things that is sometimes played out in international politics, where we’ve looked at a major cultural monument.
And I think the most dramatic example is probably the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. And the focus was very much on this as an act of kind of cultural vandalism by the Taliban. And the international community kind of rallied around trying to defend this great piece of UNESCO World Heritage. And that was the right thing to do. But if you go back and look at the discussion at the time, it kind of ignored the fact that the Hazara people who lived around the Bamiyan Buddhas were also being destroyed by the Taliban at the time, who were systematically targeting them. And they were kind of left out of the equation of the protection of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
And of course, the Taliban ultimately did destroy those Buddhas, and it also continued to try to destroy the Hazara people. So I guess the point I was trying to make—and I think it’s a point that Irina makes very powerfully—is that there shouldn’t be a false dichotomy created here. You know, those who, to paraphrase somebody else, those who burn books, eventually burn people. Those who smash and destroy monuments, religious sites, and cultural heritage also wanna smash and destroy the people who built them or who inherited them or who live around them.
And I think we just have so many examples from the world of the last decade. The Uyghurs, I think, as Rachel has shown so powerfully, is a terrifying example. But look at ISIS, for example, and what they did with the Yazidi people in northern Iraq. They wanted to scrub the map of the Middle East, and they wanted to repaint it black. And for there to be no room for Yazidis and other people who they felt didn’t fit into that world culturally, religiously, and otherwise, to be part of it.
And I think even now, look around the world. Look at what’s happening in Ukraine. I mean, I think it’s shocking to see, for example, where the theater in Mariupol was bombed by the Russians. Civilians died inside that building. The Russians have now put, literally, a curtain around the outside of that theater, upon which they’ve put the faces of major Russian cultural figures. So again, an attempt to kind of obscure their war crimes, obliterate the unique cultural heritage of the Ukrainian people, and replace it with something else, replace it with their cultural context. And I think that that process is, unfortunately, part of modern warfare.
That idea that Irina advanced, of kind of cultural cleansing, of mass atrocities. This has just become part now of the way that some states and some non-state armed groups wage war against people and against culture.
HARRIS: I mean, if I may just give a quick response to Simon’s comment there¬—
HARRIS: I think that the way that China is using heritage in order to present its own narratives of its right to control that region, how the region’s culture is safe in its hands, is extremely striking. You know, we have a report coming out quite soon, which specifically looks at the items of heritage which are on UNESCO’s lists which are based within that region, and the ways in which China has been twisting the narrative on those, and also quite ruthlessly controlling alternative narratives. I think that Xinjiang makes a very clear example of that kind of process. And also, I would say that UNESCO is really very directly complicit in that process, in the case of Xinjiang.
CUNO: Now Rachel, you close your essay by proposing that, quote, “Perhaps hope for the survival of the unique culture surrounding the Uyghur people lies in the very transient nature of its architecture.” Tell us about that.
HARRIS: There’s a New York artist, actually, called Lisa Ross, who’s spent a long time, many years, traveling around that region taking photographs of those shrines, those Sufi shrines in the desert. She was working with my Uyghur colleague Rahile Dawut, who was detained in 2017 and is still detained without charge today.
But Lisa’s photos, they give an incredible impression of the fragility and the transience of the sacred architecture and the sacred objects of those shrines, and also their spiritual power. Lisa can photograph a twig with a scrap of material tied around it, stuck in the sand, and make it look as important as any great stone Buddha, you know. So these shrines, they’re not towering monuments. They’re simple mudbrick buildings.
But what’s extraordinary about them is that every year, the pilgrims would come carrying these great big flags, singing and playing drums as they went. And they would gather these flags together and build them into these extraordinary flag mountains. So with this kind of transient architecture, which is renewed every year, it seems to me that as long as the memories remain, of the practices, then the practices can be revived and the shrines themselves can spring back life.
CUNO: Well, that’s very hopeful. Simon, what is your ambitions in all of this and what do you think the fate of culture in the region is?
ADAMS: Yeah, I think, as I said, to follow on from the, you know, the last point I made, it just seems to be part of the feature of modern warfare that states are more and more conscious of the need to, as they see it, obliterate not just their enemies on the battlefield, but to obliterate civilian populations, to obliterate the cultural underpinnings of the people.
And I think that, you know, we have to just constantly kind of remind ourselves that culture is how we live and breathe as people. Culture isn’t just dead stones and statues; culture is life. Culture is, you know, all the ways in which we move and interact together as peoples. And so again, I think it goes back to Irina’s point that when we think about how we want to live as human beings in the twenty-first century, part of that has to be making sure that we maintain diversity of cultural practices around the planet that we honor the human civilizations that came before us and the cultural traditions that make us up as modern peoples around the world; and we make sure that the people who target civilians, try to attack culture, and carry out cultural cleansing are held accountable and are called out for what they are, which is war criminals.
CUNO: Well, thank you both for helping us navigate these difficult cultural differences and the protection of cultural heritage. We committed ourselves to writing and editing this book precisely because we believe both are possible, and necessary to do so at this violent, hostile time. And the recent outbreak of violence and destruction in Ukraine by Russia, is only one of the most recent evidence that this is so. So thank you again very much, both of you.
ADAMS: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
SIMON ADAMS: Culture isn’t just dead stones and statues; cul...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824
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