24.05.2017 - Culture Sector

Stakeholders Join their Efforts to Fight Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

Museum of Cultural History/UiO/Ellen C. Holte

Illicit trafficking of cultural property is a crime that is best combated by bringing the efforts of multiple actors together and strengthening preventive actions.  Government authorities, police and customs officers, lawyers, representatives of the art market and museum directors are among those who have joined UNESCO specialists in discussing the implementation of UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property


“While the 1970 Convention now has 132 States Parties, we still need more countries to ratify it as well as the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention – because these instruments provide countries with the legal and practical framework in which to fight illicit trafficking and carry out restitution of stolen objects.  We not only implement the Conventions but expand our work, for example to improve national policies, to tackle pillaging and trafficking associated to emergency or conflict situations, or to follow-up on related Resolutions of the United Nations Security Council,” said Flavio Mendez Altamirano (Panama), Chair of the Fourth Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention held from 15 to 16 May 2017 at UNESCO’s Headquarters.  It was followed by the 5th session of its Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention from 17 to 19 May, 2017.

“Cooperation”, “education”, “security” and “ethics” are among the issues raised by experts. They are dealing with thefts in museums, public and private collections, and archaeological sites, sale of trafficked objects with dubious provenance on the art market or on the Internet, as well as with the identification of stolen objects and their repatriation and shared their experiences.  For example, Corrado Catesi, in charge of the Stolen Works of Art Unit at INTERPOL, presented the “Operation Pandora”, an international investigation led by police in Cyprus and Spain to dismantle criminal networks that concluded in January 2017 with the seizure of 3,561 works of art and cultural objects, and Sunneva Sætevik, Senior Adviser for the Norwegian Ministry of Culture, explained the process that led to the return of the Buddha Statue from Norway to Myanmar,

“We need to cooperate and share information even more. Working closely with INTERPOL, World Customs Organization, UNIDROIT, ICOM, and many others in the international community, as well as national authorities, pays off.   Here we have seen that awareness-raising of the art market and general public, training of national security agents, museum staff and archaeological site managers, listing stolen objects on databases, and strengthening national laws – these efforts together are making a difference” declared Silva Breshani (Albania), who chaired the Subsidiary Committee.

Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO Heritage Division, emphasized “the importance of all partners and stakeholders, and in particular local populations, to be more proactive and be the protectors of heritage.” This was echoed by many States Parties, such as Costa Rica’s representative who underscored that education is crucial and that “all means to reach civil societies and the private sector must be supported so they safeguard cultural property, ascertain provenance before acquiring pieces, know to report suspicious activities to authorities.” 
 France Desmarais from the International Council of Museums (ICOM) informed the meeting about 13 “Red Lists”, a practical and educational tool used to help people recognize objects that are particularly at risk of trafficking, and reminding people to ask three questions “is it authentic?, is it legal?, is it ethical?”.  Cristina Menegazzi from UNESCO’s Beirut Office screened a new awareness-raising video targeting the general public that explains what signs to look for to determine whether an object offered for sale might be stolen.

Actions in emergency situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syrian Arab republic and Yemen, where there are wider criminal and in some cases terrorist implications were also discussed.  In particular, UNESCO has supported, with its partners, numerous capacity-building or training workshops for heritage and security specialists in these countries, and the United Nations Security Council has passed several Resolutions aimed at curbing trafficking of their cultural heritage and stemming the financing of terrorist groups.  A representative from the Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team stressed that headway is being made in culture being recognized as a security matter, in the international community coming together to monitor the borders of these countries and stop the flow of objects across, and in sanctions against groups like Daesh or the Taliban.

The meetings  renewed nine of the eighteen members of the Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention (Albania, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Honduras, Peru, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, Zambia).  It also adopted a number of Resolutions  among which are encouraged the ratification and implementation of the UNESCO 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995 Conventions, as well as strengthening cooperation with law enforcement partners and bringing the realities of illicit trafficking and associated criminal practices concerning cultural property to the wider public.

The Resolutions will be available at this webpage shortly:



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