19.04.2018 - UNESCO Office in Beirut

Countering Antiquities Trafficking in the Mashreq: A Training Program for Specialists Working to Deter Cultural Property Theft and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities

Art crimes committed in the Mashreq are an ever-expanding phenomenon that is increasingly difficult to prevent, to analyze and to prosecute. The sophisticated methods of modern-day looters and middlemen, the highly efficient smuggling networks which support them, and the participation and resources of international art dealers involved in the illicit art trade make the deterrence, detection, investigation, and prosecution of crimes against art very onerous.

To counter the phenomenon of antiquities trafficking and to protect cultural heritage, UNESCO has worked at two levels. At the level of normative action, UNESCO has elaborated different treaties to fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods which may occur in different contexts: the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and its two protocols (1954 and 1999), and the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). The latter was completed by the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995, and both are operative in time of peace. UN Security Resolutions 2199 (2015), 2322 (2016) and 2347 (2017) also strongly recognize the need to protect cultural heritage as well as its in achieving peace and security. At the level of practical action, UNESCO has implemented training programmes in emergency safeguarding of cultural heritage for professionals working in at-risk source countries, some currently affected by conflict.

Against this backdrop, UNESCO Beirut, in cooperation with the “Movable Heritage and Museums Section” at UNESCO Headquarters, organized on 16-20 April 2018 a “Training Program for Specialists Working to Deter Cultural Property Theft and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities”. The program, funded by UNESCO's Heritage Emergency Fund, aimed at providing governmental authorities, art professionals, academics and decision-makers who work in fragile countries affected by cultural property theft and illicit trafficking of antiquities, with professional skills to counter such phenomenon. By working directly with professionals in countries where civil unrest and social turmoil have contributed to porous borders and opened avenues for the looting and trafficking of cultural artifacts, as well as incidences of cultural cleansing, the principle objective of this initiative was to raise awareness regarding the intricacies of art crime for those serving in heritage protection capacities.

In the opening session, Joe Kreidi, Programme Specialist for Culture at UNESCO Beirut, said that : “The protection of cultural heritage is a fundamental tool to support the development of peaceful societies, strengthen sustainable development, prevent violent extremism, and suppress terrorist financing”. He highlighted that the protection of cultural heritage is therefore a top priority for UNESCO who initiated several international treaties and conventions to counter the trafficking in cultural property.

The 5-day training, animated by experts from UNIDROIT, INTERPOL, ICOM, UNODC as well as trainers from ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art), was structured around four modules, each designed to address issues of common concern in affected source and transit countries. The topics addressed included: Museum and Site Risk Management and Hazard Mitigation; Art Crime Policing and Law; The Conflict Antiquities Trade - Characterizing and Anticipating Trafficking of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Property Crimes in the Context of Contemporary Armed Conflicts; The International Art Market and The Trade in Unprovenanced Antiquities - The Interface Between Legal and Illegal Actors in Source and Market Countries.

Sessions consisted of a mixture of lecture presentations involving art security awareness briefings, comprehensive discussions and practical demonstrations that all have the same primary objective – to pass on specialist knowledge while allowing a limited amount of time for practical, first-hand discourse drawing on the participants own experiences thereby allowing for contemplation and further debate.

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