The J. Paul Getty Trust 2016 Report

James Cuno
President and CEO
The J. Paul Getty Trust

This J. Paul Getty Trust Report deals with a matter that is at the very core of the Getty’s mission: protecting and presenting cultural heritage as the world’s cultural heritage, independent of modern political borders. In this report, you will read about the critical work the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute are doing to protect, study, and share the world’s cultural heritage.

The scope of this work is staggering. From inventorying cultural heritage sites in the Middle East to conserving modern architecture in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, to cleaning and conserving tapestries from the collection of Louis XIV, to acquiring the photographic records of vanishing Palmyra and making them available online, the Getty is conducting groundbreaking research and conservation to keep the world’s cultural heritage vibrant and meaningful for generations to come. And yet, as you will read in Richard Haass’s heartbreaking essay, none of this can withstand what he calls “Historicide,” the age-old but sadly persistent effort by peoples to destroy historical identities in order to create a new society narrowly reflective of their own ethnic or nationalist interests.

We see this playing out dramatically and tragically in Iraq and Syria today. In 2015, ISIS fighters attacked and destroyed ancient Assyrian sculptures in the museum in Mosul, Iraq, because they were said to have been put on display by “devil worshipers.” In the same year, ISIS fighters destroyed the eighth-century BC citadel of the Assyrian king, Sardon II at Khorsabad, ten miles north of Mosul, because “we’re ridding the world of polytheism and spreading monotheism across the planet.” And then, more recently, ISIS fighters destroyed the 32 AD Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, once an oasis on the ancient trading routes connecting the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and as far away as China, a testament to cosmopolitanism, where the third–century AD queen of the city, Zenobia, brought together a salon of leading intellectuals and challenged the power of the Roman emperor. In the words of United Nations (UN) Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, this “destruction of cultural heritage bears witness to a form of violent extremism that seeks to destroy the present, past, and future of human existence.”

And it has happened in our lifetime and on our watch. These examples of the world’s cultural heritage withstood the tumult of centuries until we, the international community of today, failed to protect them. And now they are gone forever.
What does this say about the state-based regime of cultural heritage laws and agreements?


The formation of new nation-states in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to state authority over the management and protection of historic and archaeological sites as well as important artifacts. With this, cultural heritage became national property.

Yet at the same time, the new antiquities laws allowed for the sharing of excavated finds between foreign excavating teams—led by institutions such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the Hermitage, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania—and national archaeological services and museums. Referred to as partage, this resulted in the scientific excavation of sites and an international distribution of the finds for further study, research, and conservation. However, with the hardening of nationalism during the mid-twentieth century, partage was all but stopped, and excavated finds were kept by the state as state property, often exploited as instruments of state formation and national identity.

This coincided with the founding of organizations such as the League of Nations and the (UN). Both organizations based their work on the political integrity and sovereignty of the nation-state.

Respect for the integrity of national sovereignty also underlies the work of the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), whose 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is the primary instrument for the international protection of cultural heritage. The Convention defines cultural property as that which was “created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory.” Additionally, it calls upon the state “to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export” and declares that “the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organized both nationally and internationally among States working in close cooperation.”

One can rightly ask if state sovereignty is the best instrument for the protection of cultural heritage, when nation-states are embroiled in civil wars or international conflicts, this often puts cultural heritage at grave risk. Let us take the current examples of Syria and Iraq, where the rise of ISIS has tested the very concept of sovereignty.

It is common in the West to hear or read of ISIS described as a terrorist group, but boasting some thirty thousand fighters, holding territory in both Iraq and Syria, and maintaining lines of communication and infrastructure, ISIS functions as a pseudo-state led by a conventional army with a sophisticated finance model and wealth that dwarfs that of any terrorist organization.

Although ISIS may share the appearance of a state, ideologically it is an anti-state “where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers…Syria is not for Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.”

These developments, compounded with internal, political disturbances and the involvement of other nations with conflicting agendas have made it difficult to know what “state” and “sovereignty” mean with regard to Iraq and Syria. They are artificial political constructions that have been in near-continuous external and internal conflict since their creation, with non-state actors controlling much of their territory and economic resources.


How have the United Nations and UNESCO responded to the chaotic and violent situation in Iraq and Syria?

To date, the UN’s response to ISIS’s attacks on individuals and categories of people as well as on cultural heritage sites, monuments, and artifacts has entailed resolutions that (1) respect the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation-state; (2) condemn ISIS for its destruction of Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage; (3) prohibit the use of funds to directly or indirectly benefit ISIS; (4) hold all parties accountable to the relevant provisions of international law; (5) demand that all United Nations Member States take appropriate steps to prevent trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage; (6) call on UNESCO and Interpol to assist in this effort; and (7) counter extremism and intolerance within the countries through education and the strengthening of civil society.


The obvious question is: what more can the international community do to protect the cultural heritage that is the property of individual nation-states when the principle of state sovereignty is the basis for its organization and action?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently convicted Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, of taking part in damaging centuries-old mud and stone buildings in Timbuktu that held the tombs of holy men and scholars. Much was made of this incident in part because it was the ICC’s first prosecution of the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. However, legal scholars warn that this does not mean that other prosecutions will easily follow. In this to-date singular instance, the perpetrator, al-Mahdi, was apprehended and turned over to the ICC for prosecution since Mali is party to the Rome Statute. Additionally, there was evidence of his committing the crime: video footage of al-Mahdi directing the attacks on the buildings and bragging about it afterwards. Neither Iraq nor Syria is party to the ICC, putting in doubt the possibility of similar prosecutions taking place in those countries.

In the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin wrote of the difficulties facing international responses to threats against cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria. To date, they have been mainly confined to assessing damage that has already taken place, reconstructing and even reproducing damaged sculptures and buildings, or dealing with situations that others have exploited for political purposes. Such exploitation occurred, for example, when the Russian government flew one hundred Moscow-based international reporters into Palmyra after it was reconquered by the Assad regime to report on St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra performing Prokofiev’s First Symphony in the Roman amphitheater.

Eakin also wrote of the opportunities that the international community has missed to closely work with and support local authorities in protecting cultural heritage at risk, citing numerous instances when local activists encased threatened objects in protective glue and sheeting and covered them in sandbags. He cited Cheikmous Ali, a Syrian archaeologist, who said that “there are many sites that are threatened and urgently in need of protection—and Syrians, some of them deep in ISIS areas, are struggling to do what they can.” He is right. Any international response must include these three tactics: intervening in conflict zones before damage and destruction have taken place; engaging and supporting local authorities in the protection of sites and heritage; and avoiding symbolic gestures in favor of real, concrete measures. But for the strategy to succeed, it must include something more: a broad legal and diplomatic framework that draws upon precedents to which the international community is committed.

The relevant such framework is Responsibility to Protect (R2P), adopted by all members of the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. R2P says that:

The duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people. This principle is enshrined in article 1 of the Genocide Convention and embodied in the principle of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ and in the concept of the Responsibility to Protect.

The R2P framework is based on three pillars of responsibility:

  • (1) The state carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  • (2) The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility; and
  • (3) The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

The scope of R2P focuses on four crimes—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2009 Report on the Responsibility to Protect warned that to extend it to other calamities such as HIV/AIDS, climate change, or the response to natural disasters, “would undermine the 2005 consensus and stretch the concept beyond recognition or operational utility.”

In 2011, Libya became the first case in which the UN Security Council authorized military intervention citing R2P, based on language used by Muammar Gaddafi that was interpreted to threaten and legitimize genocide. A few days later, NATO planes struck Gaddafi’s forces.

R2P has been criticized for infringing upon national sovereignty. Advocates for R2P counter that the only time the international community will intervene in a state without its consent is when the state is no longer upholding its responsibilities as a sovereign. Needless to say, R2P is open to interpretation on its terms. But the simple fact that it has been adopted by the UN General Assembly means that there is consensus that sovereignty alone does not justify a state failing to meet its responsibility to protect its citizens or subjects.


The Getty is working with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to explore how R2P might be applied to the protection of cultural heritage.

The question is simple: if states have the obligation to protect the cultural heritage within their borders, as the UN has said that they do, what responsibility does the international community have when the state is unable or unwilling to exercise that obligation?

The scope of R2P includes crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has used that language, calling upon the world to see ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage as acts of “cultural cleansing,” of a kind with attacks against civilians and ethnic and cultural minorities—“murder and destruction of culture are inherently linked.” Elsewhere, she has said that the “destruction of cultural heritage is a crime against humanity.”

Previously, I proposed “A Five Point Proposal for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria,” which consists of the following: (1) Embrace and participate in a military, Blue Helmet option to protect built heritage in the region; (2) Support the vigilant policing of the region’s political borders to discourage the illicit export and import of cultural heritage artifacts; (3) Encourage “safe harbor” protection of heritage artifacts in circulation outside their likely modern country of origin to be returned once stability in the region has been restored; (4) Restore partage to promote the scientific excavation of ancient sites, share the resulting finds with a global community, and broadly distribute the risk to their physical integrity through accident or intentional theft or destruction; and (5) Promote greater transnational cultural understanding of cultural identity.

None of this would have the collective force that a Responsibility to Protect framework for the protection of the world’s cultural heritage would have, and that is why the American Academy and Getty Trust are working to explore the applicability of an R2P for cultural heritage. Given the recent “Brexit” vote and the populist outcry against political elites and supranational institutions that it seems to have represented, the obstacles are many and the timing is right.

It is not only a matter of how we might restore the damage done to the cultural property of Syria and Iraq; it is, more importantly, also about how we can prevent such damage from happening to the world’s cultural heritage wherever and under whose authority it may now reside. It is also how we work together to build a common regard for cultural heritage as not one or another nation’s cultural property to be used and misused for modern nationalist purposes, but instead as belonging to all of humanity and in which all of humanity has a collective stake in its preservation. In the words of UNESCO’s Director-General: “We must respond [to the destruction of cultural heritage] by showing that exchange and dialogue between cultures is the driving force for all. We must respond by showing that diversity has always been and remains today a strength for all societies. We must respond by standing up against forces of fragmentation, by refusing to be divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We must respond by claiming our cultural heritage as the commonwealth of all humanity.”

Only then will the ideals of UNESCO, as put forward in the Charter of the United Nations—to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights without distinction of race, sex, language or religion—be realized.