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Tom Weiss, a specialist on humanitarian intervention and the United Nations, believes we are at a watershed moment for international cooperation on the protection of cultural heritage. In this episode, Weiss uses the ongoing civil war in Syria as a springboard to address the preservation of monuments and cultural heritage during times of humanitarian crisis and armed conflict. He traces the evolution of thinking and action on this issue, considering the role of the UN, useful legal frameworks, and how approaches to safeguarding cultural heritage might mirror approaches to protecting human rights and lives. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and the author of the occasional paper Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones, available for free at

An image of the Great Mosque of Aleppo with bullet holes and other damage and stacks of sandbags in the foreground.

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JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

THOMAS WEISS:  There really is no need to juxtapose a hierarchy of protection—people on one side, heritage on the other. It’s not protecting human beings or protecting monuments. This binary choice is absolutely false.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with Tom Weiss, a specialist in humanitarian intervention and the workings of the United Nations, about protecting cultural heritage in times of war.

The Roman-era oasis of Palmyra in Syria was one of the great cities of antiquity, comparable only to Petra in Jordan and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Traders from as far away as China plied their wares there en route to the Mediterranean.

In May 2015, the jihadist group ISIS attacked and entered Palmyra causing the Syrian air force to respond with bombs. This, in turn, caused grave damage to local monuments. Later that same year, Palmyra’s head of antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, refused to tell his ISIS captors where the Palmyra Museum had hidden antiquities. On August eighteenth, he was murdered, and his headless corpse was put on public display in the old city. He was 83 years old.

Irina Bokova, then director-general of UNESCO, responded to the attacks on Palmyra, and later to those on the Great Mosque in Aleppo, by declaring, “This is the way to destroy identity. You deprive [people] of their culture, you deprive them of their history, their heritage, and that is what goes hand in hand with genocide. Along with the physical persecution, [ISIS] wants to eliminate—to delete the memory of these different cultures.” UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson added, “The destruction of cultural heritage bears witness to a form of violent extremism that seeks to destroy the present, past, and future of human existence.”

In December 2016, with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Getty convened an exploratory meeting of experts to discuss the possibility of drafting an international framework for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones. A year later, the Getty initiated a series of occasional papers in cultural heritage policy. The first paper, titled “Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones,” was written by Thomas Weiss and Nina Connelly. The paper can be downloaded for free on Tom was at our exploratory meeting in 2016. He is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

I spoke with him on the phone from his office in Manhattan.

CUNO:  Welcome, Tom, and thanks for joining me on this podcast.

WEISS:  Well, thank you, Jim. And actually, for the chance to continue a conversation we’ve been having for a couple of years on this issue. And in fact, thanks a lot for your own initiative in getting this whole thing going and keeping it going.

CUNO:  Well, I’ve learned a lot from you, and I’m grateful for that. First, let me ask about your new book, Would the World Be Better Without the UN? What’s the easy answer?

WEISS:  No. [Cuno chuckles] But I can make it a little longer than that. You might suspect that since the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, wrote the forward, that the answer would be no. But I actually ask an honest question and I present some facts—and they’re not alternative facts—that are a little hard to dismiss. But there’re two parts to the books and the counterfactual.

The first is designed to be read, if they’re still reading, members of the administration, as well as foes at, say, the Heritage Foundation, and say really and truly, would the world be better without having pushed forward the rights of women? Without providing relief to those victims caught in war zones? Would it be better without the panel to have studied climate change? And the list goes on and on.

But the second half of the book has a different counterfactual, and this is for cheerleaders with blue pompoms, perhaps at the UN Foundation. And for them, it would be a little difficult to say that the world wouldn’t also be a whole lot better if peacekeepers had raped, say, fewer kids in central Africa or spread less cholera in Haiti, or if the member states had acted a little more expeditiously and less hypocritically in Rwanda in 1994 or Myanmar at the current moment. So I hope it’s an honest argument and an honest set of answers to what is not a simple question.

CUNO:  I think we can all agree that what would we do without it, and that there’s no alternative to it. One can always expect such institutions to be improved upon, but imagine the world without it.

WEISS:  Exactly.

CUNO:  And the book is published by Polity Press, and it’s out now?

WEISS:  It came out yesterday, actually.

CUNO:  Oh, good. Alright, let’s get back to your essay for our occasional paper. And let’s begin with the obvious question. What makes the situation in Syria different from, say, the Bosnian War in the early nineties, when so many religious buildings and the great Ottoman era Mostar Bridge was destroyed in the midst of ethnic cleansing? Would you or the international community, Tom, call what’s happening in Syria today “ethnic cleansing?” And if it’s not ethnic cleansing, if it’s only a terrible human tragedy, does that make any difference, when we talk about the destruction of cultural heritage?

WEISS:  Well, I don’t—I think I would not use the term “ethnic cleansing,” because all of the various parties, the various ethnic groups, are being chased or chasing others. So I guess technically, it is cleansing in one way or another. But what we definitely have seen are war crimes and crimes against humanity, exactly as we saw in the Balkans. In this case, we’ve watched it over seven—yeah, seven and counting—years. Half a million dead. Half of the prewar population of about 22 million people are now displaced, either inside the country or in the region. And ugliness and violence of epic proportions. Everyone’s familiar with that.

Perhaps some of your listeners are asking, my gosh, we’ve got all his human tragedy; why should we care about protecting cultural heritage? And as you recall, I asked myself that same question when we began our journey a couple of years ago in London. But actually, one of the main evolutions in my own thinking has resulted. Because we were asking the wrong question. There really is no need to juxtapose a hierarchy of protection—people on one side, heritage on the other. It’s not protecting human beings or protecting monuments. This binary choice is absolutely false. Just as we’ve seen earlier, in trying to juxtapose do we actually take care of people or do we protect the human environment? Frankly, we need air and water, and we need culture as part of a healthy society.

CUNO:  I couldn’t agree more, as you know. And I want to back to that at the end of our conversation, but to set it up the way you have is perfect. We’re seeing terrible human tragedy play out in Syria. If the terms of the United Nations aren’t met in this instance, they can’t be met in any instance, because it’s just unspeakable to see what’s happening. But let’s get back to the point of the occasional paper. You were the key author of the research materials that underpinned the work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that led ultimately to an adoption, in 2005, of the international framework Responsibility to Protect. I want you to give us a history and some basic principles of what we call R2P in this instance.

But let me set it up this way.

CUNO:  I was watching the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, and watching the reactions to it. And the reactions were just about exclusively wringing of hands and declaiming opposition to it, but doing nothing to prevent it. There was recognition that all one could do was to wait till the conflict was over, to come back in and to repair some of these things, if they ever were possible for repair. Or to try to close borders to prevent portable heritage objects from leaving the borders of the sovereign state of Syria or of Iraq, to avoid their going off into the black market and a kind of looted economy.

But nothing was done to prevent them from being destroyed, damaged, from playing into the hands of criminals. And I was talking to a mutual friend of ours, Jonathan Fanton, the president of the American Academy in Cambridge Massachusetts. And I was explaining what it was that was so frustrating for me. And I said to him, “I think there must be some underlying framework, legal framework, political framework that one can apply to this, instead of addressing it piecemeal, a little bit here a little bit there.” He said, “Well, there certainly is. There’s called Responsibility to Protect.” And he had been involved in its formation when he was president of the MacArthur Foundation, and they funded a lot of the work that went into it. So if you could just talk to us about that history of the R2P, and also about the relevance of R2P to this shared concern that we have about the relationship of cultural heritage to the destruction of cultural identity, the ruination of an economy, and the social fabric in Syria today.

WEISS:  Well, let’s go back a little farther than Syria. Because I think the history of this whole involvement is actually essential to understanding where we are and where we might go. The name of the commission, actually, that has the term state sovereignty, is key to our whole conversation, because traditionally, this notion has meant the sacrosanct and unquestioned ability of a state as the only source of order in the international system. In fact, the 1934 Montevideo Convention specifies the characteristics of a sovereign, which means that you have a permanent population that resides within a defined territory, and a single government that exercises authority over that population in that territory.

There is no specific mention of what happens within. And that’s really important. It’s understood that a state is not dependent on any other state for its freedom of action. And so what this traditionally has been interpreted to mean is that whatever princes or presidents or prime ministers decide to do at home is okay; it’s their own business. And that no outsider can jump in to try to change the situation, no matter how abhorrent. So nonintervention by others is the flip side of what you might call the sovereignty coin. So in the 1990s, in the turbulent decade of the 1990s, we see the contemporary origins of the call to, can we overlook or can we override this notion and try to come to the rescue of human beings who are caught in the crosshairs of violence like what we see in Syria? Which the Secretary-General today and the High Commissioner for Human Rights called “hell on earth.”

So is it possible to come to the rescue of some of these people? The conversation actually began in Northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, in trying to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, and it continued in Somalia, shortly thereafter in 1992. So those responses, actually led by the United States, had the approval of the Security Council. But if we fast forward not too far, actually, just till 1994 and the Rwandan genocide, that same Security Council and that same United States and its partners stood by and watched in real time as 800,000 people were murdered.

So everyone lamented the fact. We should recall that Bill Clinton, toward the end of his term, basically said this was the worst decision of his presidency. But later in the decade—actually, he was still in office—the Security Council was paralyzed again. This time it wasn’t by the spinelessness of the members, but this time it was paralyzed by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the face of the—well, I think what’s really a legitimately perceived situation as impending genocide in Kosovo.

Because we’d seen, shortly before, Serbian crimes and murder in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This time, however, the Security Council did nothing, but NATO, pushed by the United States, did. So many people said, oh, this was illegal because the Security Council had not authorized the action. So the commission actually had these two events as the bookends—

CUNO:  [over Weiss] Well, could tell us how the commission came into existence in the first place. Was it Kofi Annan who took the lead on this and—

WEISS:  No, no, no, it was not. Because he made a couple of controversial statements in the General Assembly that fall of 1999. And Canada, which was listening closely—in particular, its foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy—to what was seen as digging trenches between those who thought that mass atrocities were unacceptable and those who thought that mass atrocities, frankly, were within the domestic jurisdiction of states.

So Rwanda, many people saw as obviously, too little too late. In fact, nothing, except for humanitarian relief—substantial, but human relief—long after the genocide had occurred. And in Kosovo, supposedly, there was, well, too much too early. For me, and I think for lots of other people, the former—that is Rwanda—was a whole lot more of a threat to international society than the latter.

At least in the latter, there was action; so the lesser of two evils. So Canada says, listen we’re digging these trenches between those who think that sovereignty is sacrosanct and those who think that mass atrocities are really a step too far. So they put together a group of—a small group, actually—twelve people, with representatives from the north and the south, a co-chair from the north—that is, Gareth Evans, the former, at the time, foreign minister of Australia—and Mohamed Sahnoun, a former UN troubleshooter and senior official from Algeria, to run this commission and address the issue as, under what conditions is it possible to halt mass atrocities?

So the commission, actually—and here’s where we come back to the—what launched the commission, the Rwandan and Kosovo—said that—they tried to finesse the issue, frankly, of state sovereignty, saying that sovereignty, even though it’s not in the Montevideo Convention, a legitimate sovereign, not just any old sovereign, its responsibilities included protecting its own citizens. It seemed fairly obvious, but it was not.

And so they tried to inject in the definition of sovereignty, a modicum of respect for human rights. Or let’s say the bar is not all that low. That is, we have to prevent mass atrocities. Not the run-of-the-mill garden variety of abuses, but mass atrocities. And so under such situations, if a state which is sovereign commits such crimes or is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, that sovereignty, that sacrosanct sovereignty is set aside and assumed by the international community of states that can come to the rescue.

The World Summit, on the occasion of the UN’s sixtieth anniversary in 2005, approved unanimously this norm or principle of the responsibility to protect. And they saw four triggers—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

So since that time, of course, we’ve seen that states occasionally have applied this principle. It’s been applied far more often in resolutions by the Security Council and the Human Rights Council than in actuality, but we’ve seen it invoked successfully amidst the violence of Kenya in 2007, to try to halt that. We’ve seen it invoked, as well, in Libya in 2011, in the face of what looked like slaughter to occur by Gadaffi.

And I think that listeners, in case one thinks sovereignty is only overridden from outsiders coming in with military forces, one should recall that states routinely sign—we’ve got thousands of international treaties in which states hand over their sovereignty in an agreed way. And in addition, of course, in a globalizing world, whether we’re thinking about financial transfers or technologies, ideas, information, states are frankly powerless to halt the invasion from these. So sorry to have gone on a bit, but sovereignty ain’t quite what it used to be.

CUNO:  Yeah. And I was just going to ask, in civil wars like the one in Syria, with so many belligerents and non-state actors involved, I sort of even wonder what sovereignty means. I mean, here’s a case where the Security Council made an agreement to suspend fighting so that humanitarian aid could get into the eastern parts of Ghouta. And yet they allowed some exceptions to that. And you could fight still in that area, as long as you were fighting against jihadist groups. But jihadist groups are virtually—you know, the principal fight, the principal opponents—anybody that opposes a regime is considered to be a terrorist. A terrorist is, by some, a jihadist group. So what does sovereignty even mean in a civil war like Syria right now?

WEISS:  Yes. Well—

CUNO:  Who’s sovereign there?

WEISS:  Who’s sovereign? Well, let me just start with a quote from a dear—giant dear friend and a giant of the UN system, Sir Brian Urquhart. You may recall that he was actually the second official recruited by the UN in 1946 after he had served in the European Theater and had been part of the planning process. And he said, you know, “The UN is the last bastion of national sovereignty,” is what he told me.

He was lamenting, of course, the fact that the institution—well, its member states—would not permit the institution to come to the rescue of desperate human beings, so that sovereign thugs had a license for mass murder. That was their business. And for decades, member states agreed. So a political scientist, Alex Wendt, famous wrote about twenty-five years ago that “anarchy,” which is kind of the lack of any central authority or sovereignty being supreme, “is what states make of it.”

Well, so in Syria, where Russia is behind the current government of Assad, that’s the only sovereign entity that is a member of the UN, even though it only controls probably, what, a quarter of the country. The other three-quarters is controlled by ISIS, an assortment of belligerents—probably a hundred of them—well-armed, Kurdish fighters, US soldiers. As you’ve implied, what does sovereignty mean? It means whosever occupying the capitol and who is a member state of the UN.

And it seems to me that this really is the crux of the problem for our conversation about protecting cultural heritage. Because the same kind of constraints that faced the protection of human beings face the protection of cultural heritage. And the framework that the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty came up with is, frankly, the same framework, I think, that you and other people in the museum and curator and archaeological business use, namely, prevention, reaction, and rebuilding. And as for both mass atrocities or for the destruction of cultural heritage, it’s useful to think about these three. Obviously, the best option is to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage or the murder of people. But if that fails, it really is essential to react. And that means trying to protect cultural heritage or protect human beings.

And if all else fails, and unfortunately, that’s what happens on too many occasions, one has to try to rebuild after the armed conflict, the page has been turned on the armed conflict, or after bits and pieces of cultural heritage have either been destroyed or looted or taken away. So it seems to me that this same vocabulary works for both sets of concerns and the same conceptual framework as well.

CUNO:  Yeah. Now, your paper makes clear that the protection of cultural heritage has been codified in international law, for even more than a century. So what’s different about those earlier conventions and statutes protecting cultural heritage in times of war and R2P or some kind of R2P that’s being developed to protect cultural heritage now?

WEISS:  Well, let me put in a plug for our paper. Your listeners can download it. And it’s the first one in a series. For those who are interested, there’re gonna be an entire set of critical looks at this issue.

But one of the things the paper tries to do is provide the international legal backdrop for this conversation. And in particular, the two most important conventions, the 1954 Hague update and the 1970 UNESCO Convention. And they made clear, actually, that cultural destruction, as well as looting and transporting such objects, are war crimes. And arguably, one could say that they’re also crimes against humanity.

And in fact, so two of the four triggers that are in the decision on R2P—and in course, cultural heritage is part and parcel of trying to destroy history when genocide is involved. So in fact, we’ve seen one decision by the International Criminal Court that has made a first judgment against a war criminal, one of the people who led the destruction of the libraries and archives in Timbuktu in Mali.

So it seems to me that we could say—I’m not a lawyer, but as an observer of this whole thing with a little legal background—it’s not the law that’s lacking, but the political will to do something about that law. That’s the case for R2P in Syria and Myanmar, and it’s for civilians and it’s the same case for protecting heritage in either of those places. I think what we’re—

CUNO:  [over Weiss] But wasn’t it the case in Mali, the fact that Mali was a signatory to the Rome statute, which allowed for the court to try the case; whereas in the case of Syria, for example, Syria’s not a signatory to it, and neither is the United States. So the question about these various conventions that precede R2P or what distinguishes R2P from them is that R2P is applicable to all members of the United Nations or of the international community, whereas these conventions are only in force among those countries or the sovereign states that have signed onto them.

WEISS:  You know, that is absolutely true. But what I was trying to say is that the triggers for what is agreed in R2P actually contain within them the destruction of cultural heritage. It’s part and parcel of the definition of a war crime. And most people, including the court, think that it’s arguably a crime against humanity. But in any case, there’s plenty of grounds to act in Syria and Myanmar.

We’re talking about the law being there and the interpretations—but what’s new is, I think, the visibility of the issue, with institutions like the Getty and governments like France and Italy now in the forefront of trying to flag this issue as an issue for consideration by the Security council. The emphasis has been on terrorism to date, but it will extend beyond there. So it seems to me that the possibility of talking about them, the possibility of doing something about them began, frankly, for war victims, in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War.

And it seems to me that we have a similar moment at present for cultural heritage. Some of the people dragging their feet are, in fact, the proponents of R2P who see this as somehow diluting R2P. I’ve spent a lot of time, as have you, trying to dissuade our friends that this really is not the case. And so the reason I think this legal backdrop, which has signatories from 160 of 193 states, is that the—it’s not a distraction for proponents who want to help human beings come to the rescue of civilians in war zones. So I don’t see that cultural cleansing, which is what Madame Bokova calls this. It’s not an additional crime. We don’t actually need to add to the list for mass atrocities agreed at the 2005 summit because it’s a fundamental aspect of R2P, which provides the wherewithal, I think, to take action if there were some political will to take action.

I think in the paper, we make reference to Raphael Lemkin, who obviously was both the spirit, as well as the drafter, frankly, of much of the 1948 convention on the prevention of the crime of genocide. And he had originally included cultural heritage as part and parcel of the definition of genocide, which was removed because it seemed mushy, in comparison with the killing of human beings. But there’s that wonderful quote from him, which we use, which is that, you know, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies.” Well, we can all agree to that. But when one intervenes—that is, comes to the rescue—when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books, one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies. And so it’s that framework, I think, that we have and which could be used to protect cultural heritage in Syria or Myanmar or a host of other places.

CUNO:  I think that’s absolutely right Tom. And what gives me hope with this concept of considering the protection of cultural heritage within the framework of R2P is the fact that there is international agreement on it and it’s accountable to this new or different view of sovereignty, as we were mentioning earlier. So I want to come back to sovereignty in this way with regard to cultural property.

Many, indeed most, nation states have cultural property laws that vest ownership of cultural heritage in the state, the sovereign state. Should the state be accountable to protecting cultural heritage under its ownership or care then, if the ownership is vested in the state? And if it’s unwilling or unable to do that—indeed, if in the case, as in Syria, it even attacks or endangers cultural heritage, has it not forfeited its right to claims of state ownership over that cultural heritage? Can a state do whatever it wants to do with cultural heritage?

WEISS:  Yeah. Well, it’s actually that flip side of the coin we talked about earlier. Is whatever a head of state or head of government does within the boundaries or borders, however defined, okay? And here’s where the politics of the issue become really prominent. Because there’s quite a difference between the 1954 convention, which I think emphasizes a sort of cosmopolitan worldview, and a 1970 convention, which is much more state-centric.

The latter emphasizes—well, it was formulated, signed, ratified, and put forward to UNESCO at the height of the postcolonial period, the muscle flexing by newly liberated countries. And it actually is quite easy for anyone who’s studied colonialism to say that after throwing aside the yoke of imperial domination, young countries sought to exercise their rights to protect what was on their territories.

Well, we can understand that. I think the topic of culture, of cultural heritage, was especially fraught because of how much of that heritage had gotten hauled away. Sometimes legally, but actually, frequently simply stolen. So those two conventions juxtapose sort of two worldviews. The latter is very state-centric and would lead us to answer your question by saying, yeah, a state can do whatever the hell it wants with cultural heritage. Because the important question, I think, to you or to me, is, is cultural heritage something that belongs to all of us, is important to all of us or only to those governments and citizens of the countries which have jurisdiction over them, if they’re immovable temples and such, or movable objects that have been carted away?

It seems to me that the opposing answers, the former a kind of Enlightenment-driven cosmopolitanism, and the later a committed nationalism, are actually found in those two legal instruments. And so different answers to those questions actually give different answers to your question, can a state do what the hell it pleases? And in fact, if we interpret narrowly that a state is responsible, and therefore the privileges and accidents of geography and political change, whether that’s a coup or an election, makes the representative of that state responsible for the definition of what’s worthwhile and what’s not worthwhile, we’re in a real fix. Because arguably, one would say, well, the Taliban’s decision to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas was okay. They were in charge of the state at that time, and why do we need Buddhas in a Muslim state? Or the Chinese government’s decision, over decades now, to get rid of Tibetan objects and shrines. Or at this moment, indeed, Myanmar’s government’s participation in the destruction of Rohingya mosques. It’s their business; it’s not yours or mine. Obviously, we don’t agree with that. But if you’re a strict interpreter of sacrosanct of state sovereignty and you think that the 1970 convention gives that power to the state, in fact, states can do what they please.

CUNO:  Yeah. As you and I’ve been talking about, and with our colleagues, about how we might expand R2P to include the protection of cultural heritage or not. We’ve talked about a process by which we might move the conversation forward toward some kind of action. You’ve suggested, and you suggest in the Occasion Paper, that we should assemble a commission, not unlike the commission that was assembled and for which you led the research work for to support. But a commission that would be modified for the purpose and function to deal with cultural heritage. And you have a section in the paper called “Assembling a Commission,” and you have a question mark about that. Why is there a question after that? Why do we doubt the value of assembling a commission?

WEISS:  Well, I think that, you know, people who are not in our business, we oftentimes look up, and oh, my God, yet another piece of paper, yet another piece of research. You and I have a professional malady of thinking that more information, more knowledge, critical thinking, helps advance an issue. And commissions have a mixed record, let’s face it. But some of them—and I think the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty is one of those, probably the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development is another—are a curious mixture of research, information gathering, and political mobilization. The two of those were both independent. That is, they were not sort of confined within the august circles on First Avenue here in New York, or in Geneva, or Vienna, but with all of the problems associated with trying to keep 193 governments happy all of the time. So the commission allows you to move outside of that framework, but to address an issue that’s front and center within that framework.

There’s a history of these, and you know, I’m a student of the processes of international affairs, and so I see the commissions as one of the devices that have been used successfully over the years. The first one began with Lester Pearson, looked at development. There’ve been a whole series of other ones—by Olof Palme, on common security; as I mentioned, the Brundtland Commission. There are dozens of these. It seems to me that in looking at the kinds of expertise on such commissions, they combine kind of political punch, access to decision makers, access to the media, with knowledge of a particular issue.

So commissioners, they’re no longer the head of state or prime minister, they’re no longer the foreign ministers. They speak in their individual capacities. And in those individual capacities, they can move beyond what passes for received wisdom, conventional wisdom, on any issue. And so after the report comes out, the politics of this are really quite interesting. Because usually, they’re presented to the UN Secretary-General, who claims that he really didn’t have anything to do with this, which may or may not be the case.

But the multinational composition, the composition of the people on the research team, among the commissioners, allows the Secretary-General, and eventually something like the General Assembly, as we saw with R2P, to look at ideas which never, ever would’ve resulted from deliberations by 193 countries—should I say push out the envelopes—and look at the issue seriously. So the proper proposal here is to bring together such a commission, to make sure that this current interest in the issue, which I think actually we could say began probably in the Balkans with the real-time destruction of the Mostar Bridge, and we’ve seen numerous occasions now since then that there is a real interest in this issue at present.

The Security Council has referred to it a number of times. There is a new fund established by the French and Emirates to work on these issues. I think it is the moment to make sure that the interest and momentum doesn’t evaporate, but is pushed out by such a commission.

CUNO:  Yeah, and I think the commission does two things simultaneously—and maybe you’re already saying this—but one is that it provides the kind of groundwork or research, text-based analysis for political action, but secondly, by the workings of the commission itself, which is represent—broadly representative of the international community, that might be co-chaired, as it was in the first instance, by someone from the global north and someone from the global south. So there’s inclusiveness involved. That it works out the politics in the process of the discussions of the commission. So by the time it gets to the deliberative body of the General Assembly, or prior to that, the Security Council of the United Nations, it’s already gone through some politics.

WEISS:  That’s correct. And in this case, I think it’s a little different from the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, because that commission, if we go back to our earlier part of the conversation, in which there had been a number of cases—Northern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo in the 1990s—a lot of political contestation and a lot of research about the nuts and bolts issues on the ground had come together. So when, as researcher, I tried to pull this stuff together, there actually was a whole lot of material, relevant material, to pull together.

I think in the case of cultural heritage, we’ve seen bits and pieces all over the map. So I see this as probably involving, one, a process that would last at least a couple of years. In the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s case, it was one year, forced march pace. That really is too rapid here. Previous commissions have usually taken two, three, four years, commissioned some independent research. And it seems to me in this case, one would have to do that.

And in addition, it’s not just politics and law. We have economics, we have the nuts and bolts of how do you map all of this out? You have archaeologists, sociologists, anthropologists. So it seems to me that the commission would have to cover, or have among its members, people with expertise on a far greater number of issues that we had in the Commission on Integration and State Sovereignty, which had basically some politicians, some social scientists, a lawyer, a soldier, a philosopher. But we were all card-carrying members of the humanitarian establishment. I think the cultural heritage establishment would be a more diverse group, and therefore, the conversation would take longer to get going. And I think the actual research topics would also require further deliberation and much more work than we got involved in.

CUNO:  Yeah. Now, we’re running out of time here, but I want to get to this, for one final question, get back to this point about why bother protecting cultural heritage when we’re unable or unwilling to protect human life, as we’ve seen played out so dramatically in Syria. And I want to get back to what you and I’ve talked about before this podcast. And that is the role that cultural heritage plays, not only just in the carving out of an identity of a collective group of people, but in revitalizing civil society and economic vitality post-conflict.

And what role can the protection of cultural heritage play in counterinsurgency scenarios, as one finds in warfare, in warfare that’s playing out in Syria today, for example. If one’s not involved in protecting cultural heritage, if it’s not involved in showing that one cares about the current religious practice and the historical cultures of a people, what kind authority does one have in that relationship with those people post-conflict?

WEISS:  Yeah. Well, you’ve pretty much said what I would have to say. I mean, turning a page on a conflict is never easy. It usually takes years, if not decades. And one of the essential elements is trying to put the equivalent of the cultural Humpty-Dumpty back together again. It’s important to society to be able to go back and refer to texts, to language, and to places, whether those be church or mosques or temples. And second of all, in addition to rebuilding or reknitting, shall we say, the fabric of a society, it’s also important, in a more concrete economic way, that afterwards in societies, many of which formerly made a substantial amount of money from tourism and from other kinds of employment related to the existence of significant cultural heritage, need to have those there in order to attract investors and generate employment for the future.

But I think it’s really the reknitting the fabric that is the important part of the argument. And if one is going to have the support of local populations, one has to demonstrate that their heritage, their background, their families, their literature are essential parts of the future, and not just of a destroyed past.

CUNO:  Well, I couldn’t say it better. That’s for sure. So Tom, thank you for the time on this podcast. Thank you especially for the authorship of this first Occasional Paper at the Getty, which is available, as you say, for download free of charge at the Getty website, But we can just come to the Getty website and it can found. So thank you for that, and thank you for all the conversations that we’ve had. And we’ll have more, and let’s push forward this agenda.

WEISS:  Terrific, Jim. All the best.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

THOMAS WEISS:  There really is no need to juxtapose a hierarchy of protection—people on one sid...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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