29.09.2016 - Culture Sector

Save culture, end trafficking of stolen antiquities

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“Prevention”, “cooperation”, and “awareness raising” are the terms that one hears when it comes to preventing illicit trafficking in cultural property. The challenges are many: thefts in museums, public and private spaces, and archaeological sites are ongoing; conflicts ravaging the Middle East are leading to a surge in looting and trafficking; and circulation and sale of trafficked objects and frauds, also increasingly on the Internet, are sophisticated, linked to international organized crime, and hard to track.

“We all have a responsibility here – the dialogue between States, art market and law enforcement is key” said Dr Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO Heritage Center at the Subsidiary Committee Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters from 26-28 September.

“Local populations need to understand the value of their heritage and be its first and best guardians, especially around archaeological sites. Museums, the auction houses and collectors must be proactive and ascertain provenance before acquiring pieces.” Dr. Rössler insisted. 

Mr Neil Brodie, an international expert based in the United Kingdom, expressed concern over the large volume looted antiquities, like jewelry and coins, that are easy to conceal and transport for sale on auction websites and E-Bay. In a three-month span, 60 Tel Halaf figurines were sold on E-Bay by seven sellers based in the UK; these objects are listed on the ICOM Red List of Syrian Cultural Heritage at Risk. Additionally, the authenticity and provenance are not guaranteed “If it is a fake the crime is fraud, and if it is genuine the crime is theft,” Mr Brodie said.

Wider criminal implications were raised with regard to Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, Libya and Yemen where the plight of cultural heritage includes reported looting and trafficking. UN Security Council Resolutions 2199 and 2253 are helping to curb trafficking and stem the financing of terrorist groups, but better standards and more action on the ground are needed, particularly training, monitoring along borders of transit countries and prosecution of crimes.  

Mr John Carlson, Principal Administrator of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF), explained how this body of policy makers, law enforcement and regulators sets global standards combatting money laundering and terrorist financing. “When you have terrorist organizations such as IS [Islamic State] receiving financial support through looting of cultural artifacts, it brings home the importance and critical nature of this work,” he said.

Mr Carlo Chiaromonte, Head of the Criminal Law and Counter-Terrorism Divisions of the Council of Europe,  presented a new draft criminal law convention to combat illicit trafficking of cultural property proposed by the Council of Europe.  “Trafficking in cultural property is increasingly exploited by terrorist groups, is linked to money laundering, and is a main source of profit for criminal organizations,” Chiaromonte said. The proposal aims to complement UNESCO’s 1970 Convention which provides its 131 States Parties with a framework of preventive measures, restitution provisions, and international cooperation, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention which elaborates restitution of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects. 

The meeting also considered trafficking and repatriation of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, and ways to link provisions of the 1970 Convention with the Articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ms Andrea Carmen, Executive Director, International Indian Treaty Council, in outlining the legal complexities involved, stressed the important relationship indigenous peoples have with sacred and ceremonial objects, many of which can be found in museums around the world.  

The meeting was chaired by Ms María Vlazaki (Greece), and opened by Mr Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture and was attended by 175 government representatives and international experts who shared concrete cases and adopted a set of Resolutions.




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