Experts propose prevention, preparedness in fight against unprecedented cultural destruction and illegal trafficking

On 27 May 2016, UNESCO co-organized, with the Permanent Missions of Jordan and Italy to the United Nations, INTERPOL and UNODC an expert meeting on the destruction of cultural heritage and the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property in source countries.  This meeting is part of the partnership initiative “Protecting Cultural Heritage – an Imperative for Humanity: Acting together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist groups and organized crime.”  

The event convened a broad range of diverse stakeholders, including representatives of Member States, intergovernmental organizations, museums, universities and heritage conservationists. Participants included   Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of Emergency Preparedness and Response of the Culture Sector at UNESCO, Michael Danti, Academic Director of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) cultural heritage initiatives, Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, Marina Schneider, Senior Legal Officer at UNIDROIT, Edouard Planche, Programme Specialist, Section for Movable Heritage and Museums at UNESCO, Stefan Simon, Inaugural Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale University, Ben Jeffs, Program Director, World Monuments Fund, Emmanuel Roux, Head of INTERPOL in New York, and others.  

Giovanni Boccardi highlighted the international community's concern over the current unprecedented levels of attacks against culture, including those due to collateral damage and intentional destruction. Often such attacks are combined with the persecution of groups and individuals based on their cultural background and thus constitute " cultural cleansing" as defined by UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova.  Boccardi stressed that “this is not only an issue about an ongoing cultural disaster but also a major security, humanitarian and human rights problem.” He further identified crucial needs among the international community to be able to respond to such attacks, including the documentation and inventory of destroyed cultural properties, efficient planning and preparation for emergency response, and the need for coordination at the national and global levels. He also added that culture is not given sufficient consideration in the security and humanitarian policy framework among the respective UN bodies and on the ground. It was pointed out that the implementation of appropriate UNESCO Conventions could be part of an effective solution. Boccardi encouraged member states to ratify and implement the respective legal frameworks and to ensure the integration of culture in UN security, peace-building and humanitarian policies and programs.  

Michael Danti presented statistics concerning the cultural heritage crisis in Syria and northern Iraq that he qualified as the greatest cultural heritage crisis since World War II. Mr. Danti further stressed that the Jihadi-Salafi doctrine calls for the deliberate destruction of cultural assets, usually heritage sites, in order to achieve ideological and strategic objectives as well as to gain media exposure. Many discussed the linkages between the illegal acquisition and sale of cultural property and financing of terrorist organizations. He added that, in recent months, more religious sites and monuments were destroyed than archeological sites, which was not the case in 2015.    

Amjad Al-Moumani, Deputy Permanent Representative of Jordan, stressed the need to “increase the awareness of the international community around the serious issue of cultural heritage destruction as a security and humanitarian imperative.”  Luigi Marini, Legal Advisor at the Permanent Mission of Italy, highlighted practical initiatives, urging member states to ratify and implement the respective Conventions, establish National Focal Points on the issue of illicit traffic of cultural property, and, along with relevant stakeholders, leverage efficient public-private partnerships and provide specific training and education for the safeguarding of cultural heritage.  

Emmanuel Roux of INTERPOL encouraged governments, auction houses, museums and private collectors to use the INTERPOL database of stolen works of art more efficiently and called on the source countries of stolen objects to create special units in their police services dedicated to the theft of cultural property.  Nodirjon Ibragimov of UNODC stressed that the restitution of stolen cultural property is mandated under the international law and in this framework, the effectiveness of the domestic procedures for enabling states to file a case in domestic courts is key.  

Tess Davis, on behalf of the Antiquities Coalition, emphasized that, in order to prevent cultural heritage trafficking, “demand” countries should close their borders to the trade of antiquities. It was further stressed that cultural heritage provides an important foundation for national reconciliation and economic recovery and that its protection should be included in any peacekeeping mandate, and prioritized throughout the post-conflict period. Moreover, Ms. Davis recommended that crimes against culture should be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes.  

Edouard Planche, UNESCO, emphasized that prevention is a key issue in fighting illicit trafficking and encouraged a more comprehensive use of the tools at States’ disposal, including, among others, the Object ID form for simplified inventories, the UNESCO-UNIDROIT Model Provisions on State Ownership of Undiscovered Cultural Objects as well as the UNESCO-WCO model export certificate of UNESCO. He also insisted on the importance of global ratification of the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention. Stefan Simon, Yale University, recommended the development of a partnership to engage young people in preservation and to educate the next generation on how to better protect their cultural heritage in the future.  

This meeting is the last of a series of round tables organized by the Permanent Missions of Jordan and Italy, in collaboration with UNESCO, INTERPOL and UNODC, and will conclude with a high-level meeting during the annual General Debate of the UN General Assembly in September 2016.  

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