06.12.2015 - UNESCO Office in Beirut

Security, policy and law during the national Seminar on illicit trafficking of cultural property

UNESCO Officials with Mr. Sarkis Khoury during the opening session of the Seminar © UNESCO Beirut 2015

The urge to address illicit trafficking of cultural property and the need to push towards the adoption of preventive measures to facilitate recovery through strict methods and appropriate channels, have long been placed on UNESCO top priorities. In light of armed conflicts spreading in the region, several historic sites, some listed on the World Heritage list, are subject to destruction, looting and vandalizing. With its geographical location, Lebanon is being used as a transit country for looted antiquities coming from Syria and Iraq. Fighting illicit trafficking is another setback and amongst the major challenges that Lebanon has to deal with due to the regional crisis, especially in light of the resolution 2199, adopted recently by the Security Council. As the leading organization in the field of protection of cultural heritage, UNESCO informed the international community since the start of the turmoil in the region, about the massive danger threatening cultural heritage in concerned countries, and of the intentional and systematic destruction, in addition to looting and illicit trafficking.

In the light of all the foregoing, and in conjunction with the #unite4heritage campaign launched by the UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova during her official visit to Iraq and then Lebanon in spring of 2015, UNESCO Office in Beirut, the European Union and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), organized under the auspices of the Minister of culture, HE Raymond Ariji, represented by Director General of Antiquities, Mr. Sarkis Khoury, a national seminar entitled “Building capacities on the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects: prevention, cooperation and restitution in Lebanon”. The seminar was held in Al Bustan Hotel, Brummana, from 2 to 4 December 2015.

Judges from the Department of Justice, representatives from the National Interpol Office, high-ranking officers from various security agencies (army, internal security forces, border police and customs), in addition to directors and officials from various museums, and the cadre of the Department of Antiquities at the Ministry of Culture participated in this seminar, along with representatives from UNESCO, the European Union, ICMPD (Vienna), and the International Council of museums (ICOM).

Sessions were facilitated by a number of prominent experts from UNESCO Office in Beirut, UNESCO Cultural Heritage Protection Treaties Section (Paris), the INTERPOL, World Customs Organization (WCO), the Swiss Federal Police, ICOM Lebanon, UNIDROIT, The Association for Research into Crimes Against Arts (ARCA), as well as academics from British universities.

"Your positive reaction to the invitation of UNESCO, the EU, and ICMPD and your participation in this workshop is by itself an evident sign to the severity of the question of illicit trafficking at present. All over the world, and in the Arab region and Lebanon in particular", stated Dr. Hamed Al-Hammami, Director of UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut. "The Cultural heritage in Lebanon and the Arab countries is considered to be one of the most important and richest worldwide. For thousands of years, this region has been home of countless civilizations. These civilizations imprints are of a substantial material and spiritual value", added Dr. Al-Hammami.

"Therefore, the significance of this heritage requires all of us; who are concerned with preserving and ensuring the transmission of this heritage to future generations; to adopt all available means and methods, and put plans and mechanisms necessary for the protection of this region's cultural property, its conservation, inventory and combat against its illicit trafficking".

"The phenomenon of illicit trafficking of cultural property is one of UNESCO's main concerns. The Organization worked towards the development of in the 1970 Convention detailing measures to prevent and stop the import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property illegally. This convention represents the first tool in the field of fighting illicit trafficking of cultural property, and it is approved worldwide, with 129 member States, including States that are considered important centres of art antiques market", concluded UNESCO Director, praising the Lebanese Minister of Culture, the EU, and other partners who contributed in organizing this seminar, hoping for it to achieve its goals, particularly in terms of increasing coordination between all stakeholders.

On the other hand, Director-General of Antiquities, Sarkis Khoury, stated that "we are now suffering the consequences of barbaric endeavors to distort the region's civilizations and smuggle its artifacts". "Our meeting today is of utmost need to coordinate national and international efforts to protect the common human heritage. As departments and organizations participating in this workshop, we are invited today to coordinate efforts and exchange information to reduce such crimes and hold awareness campaigns to urge citizens not to take part in such illegal actions through buying smuggled antiquities". While praising UNESCO efforts in combating smuggling and trafficking of cultural property, the Director General stressed that "the Ministry of Culture in Lebanon strongly condemns the loss of cultural treasures in its neighbouring countries, and fully supports the resolution 2199 adopted by the Security Council on 12 February 2015. In line with the international Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, ratified by Lebanon in 1990, and implemented through effective cooperation with the Iraqi and Syrian authorities, the Ministry of Culture calls to mainstream real awareness to combat increasing acts of illicit trafficking of cultural property ".

Culture Programme Officer in UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut, Joseph kreidi, stressed that "the current situation of cultural heritage in this region of the world raises serious concerns", noting that "many archaeological sites and museums were subject to acts of vandalism and looting". Kreidi considered that "Lebanon has long made the issue of fighting illegal trafficking of cultural property at the top of its priorities, through adopting strict and preventive measures, also facilitating the recovery process through the appropriate channels and methods". "Strengthening national and regional international cooperation is vital to combat illicit trafficking", he added.

The seminar also contained a special component dedicated to spreading media awareness on the 1954 Hague Convention, as it focused on working towards the immediate ratification of the Convention's second Protocol, through enabling participants and familiarizing them with its content, as well as other international conventions adopted in this field such as the 1995 Convention of the International Institute for the Unification of private law (UNIDROIT).

Throughout this event, participants have been empowered to take full advantage of the tools developed by international organizations, thereby enabling them to disseminate the use of those tools and that knowledge within their respective institutions in view of a better implementation of the 1970 Convention.

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