29.11.2017 - UNESCO Office in Nairobi

Ethiopia ratifies the UNESCO 1970 Convention to reinforce its fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property

Celebrations by local populations during the arrival of the first part of the Aksum obelisk, which was returned to Ethiopia from Italy in 2005.

On 27 November 2017, UNESCO received Ethiopia’s instrument of ratification of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Ethiopia took measures on a national level to pass the legislation necessary to ratify the Convention in 2006, and the instrument of ratification was officially submitted to UNESCO this week, bringing the number of countries having ratified the 1970 Convention to 135 worldwide. In the Eastern Africa region, Ethiopia joins Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles and Tanzania, who are also States Parties to the Convention.

Ethiopia’s ratification follows a commitment made by its State Minister Mr. Ramadan Ashenafi Hojelle during a Ministerial Roundtable to Strengthen Synergies for the Protection of Cultural Property in Eastern Africa, which was organized by UNESCO and the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Mauritius on 20 July 2017.

The 1970 Convention was adopted by UNESCO Member States as a means to combat the looting of archaeological sites and illicit trafficking of museum collections around the world, which was rampant in the early 20th century, and is unfortunately still active today. It was the first international legal framework for the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property in times of peace.

For years, Ethiopia has been victim to theft and looting of its cultural property, especially from its Orthodox churches and other religious and archaeological sites. Over 20 years ago, in 1995, the UN General Assembly addressed the issue of illicit trafficking of cultural property in Ethiopia in a report, which stated that “Many objects of great value to Ethiopia's heritage were completely unprotected because they were used in everyday social and religious life.” The report referred to certain Ethiopian items that were held abroad, including the royal treasure and Ethiopia’s famous icon ‘The stigmata of Christ’. The most renown case was the Axum Obelix, which was returned to Ethiopia’s venerable World Heritage site from Italy in 2005, after being in Rome since 1937. With tourism increasing and access to cultural sites made easier by low-cost air connections and infrastructure developments, Ethiopia’s heritage sites are increasingly vulnerable to theft and looting.

The 1970 Convention works hand in hand with the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, and together they offer strong legal protection against illicit trafficking of cultural property.

One of the urgencies of ratifying the 1970 Convention is that it is not retroactive, meaning the Convention is only applicable to cultural objects stolen or illicitly exported from one State Party to another State Party after the date of entry into force of the Convention for both States concerned.

The type of cultural property protected under the 1970 Convention is widely defined, but property has to be explicitly designated by the States as important for its archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.

In addition to offering benefits to countries who ratify the Convention, the instrument also holds obligations for States Parties, who pledge to adopt protection measures in their territories (such as national legislation, national inventories, codes of conduct for dealers in cultural property, educational programmes, etc.). States also commit to controlling the movement of cultural property (for example, by using export certificates, penal sanctions, import bans, requiring art dealers to maintain registries of object origin, etc). Lastly, by ratifying the 1970 Convention, countries promise to return stolen cultural property to other State Parties, which has been stolen from a museum, religious institution or public monument.

“Increasingly, we are seeing cultural property be a target of war and conflict,” said Ms. Ann Therese Ndong Jatta, Director of the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, “and the illicit trafficking of cultural property has been used to finance terrorist groups and organizations,” she added. By ratifying the 1970 Convention, Ethiopia has joined the network of countries around the world who are uniting their forces to combat illicit trafficking of cultural property. It has also responded to the March 2017 call of the UN Security Council Resolution 2347 on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which recognizes the indispensable role of international cooperation in crime prevention and criminal justice responses to counter trafficking in cultural property.

For further reading:

1970 Convention

Unite For Heritage

Culture at Risk

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