Prevention of Looting and Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property

The looting of cultural artefacts in Cambodia has been endemic since 1972. However, important progress has been made in the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural property in the last years. The pillage within the World Heritage Site of Angkor has virtually ceased to exist, but other archaeological and monumental sites, particularly in isolated parts of the country continue to be victims of systematic plunder.

Moreover, archaeological sites have started to be targeted by looter. In view of this situation, UNESCO is working in close partnership with the national authorities to adopt a number of measures in this field.

First, UNESCO gives assistance to the national authorities for the reinforcement of the existing legal framework. In 1996, the National Assembly adopted the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage (25/1996), which covers both movable and immovable objects and aims at protecting cultural property against acts of vandalism, illicit transfer of ownership, excavations, illicit export and import. At the request of the Ministry of Culture of Fine Arts, UNESCO provided financial and technical support to prepare a Sub-decree of implementation of the 1996 Law. In particular, a highly qualified legal expert assisted in January 2002 the relevant national stakeholders in the drafting of this text. The process for the preparation of this text was led by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. The process was characterised as open and participatory, since all relevant stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Culture of Fine Arts, the APSARA Authority, the Ministry of Justice, the Council of Ministers and the National Commission for UNESCO, were fully involved in the formulation of this Sub-decree.

The Sub-decree, which specifies the categories of cultural objects falling under the scope of the Law and contains legal provisions to regulate trade, archaeological excavations, export and import of cultural property, entered into force on 17 September 2002, upon signature by Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen.

Following recommendations of UNESCO, the Royal Government of Cambodia has also recently ratified the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, a major international instrument to fight the illicit traffic of cultural property. This Convention complements the legal dispositions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The UNIDROIT Convention has been designed to fundamentally alter market forces governing private transactions of art objects. Its main provisions mentions that the possessor of a stolen cultural object must return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original theft. It also denies any compensation for the return of cultural property unless the possessor "neither knew nor ought reasonably to have known that the object was stolen". These provisions are intended to persuade potential art buyers to enquire about an object's ownership history. The Convention also enables the rightful owners to bring a claim for the recovery of a cultural object before the courts of another contracting party where the cultural object is located.

Cambodia became a Contracting State to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention by submitting the Instruments of Ratification to the Italian Government, the depositary of this Convention, on 11 July 2002. As a result, the UNIDROIT Convention entered into force for Cambodia on 1 January 2003, becoming the 17th State to ratify or accede to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. 12 other States have also signed the Convention, but have not completed yet the process of ratification.

UNESCO also assists in the preparation of requests for restitution of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects which have been seized in other countries, in application of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and a bilateral agreement signed in 2000 between Cambodia and Thailand to combat against illicit traffic of cultural property. For instance, UNESCO assisted the Cambodian Government in the negotiations with the Thai Government in 2001 and 2002 for the restitution of 43 cultural artefacts of Cambodian origin, which had previously transited through Singapore. In application of the bilateral agreements signed between the two parties, the Thai authorities originally requested the Cambodian side to present formal evidence that would allow the restitution of these objects to Cambodia.

Moreover, some major cases of restitution also took place in 2002. In particular, on 26 April 2002, two outstanding Khmer artefacts were returned to Cambodia by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, namely a 9th-centry stone head of Shiva and a 12th-century stone head of a demon or asura. These two objects were included in the past editions of the publication "One hundred missing objects: Looting in Angkor", by ICOM and UNESCO. Both pieces were donated to the Honolulu Academy of Arts in early 1990s by wealthy collectors from reputable dealers and did not know that they had been stolen.

UNESCO organises regular conferences and events to raise awareness among senior officials about the need to protect the cultural heritage and fight against the illicit traffic of cultural objects. For instance, UNESCO organised on 25 April 2002 a conference by Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, on the theme of "Phnum Snay Archaeological Site Scientific Research and Illegal Excavations".

A major event concerning the illicit traffic of cultural property that provoked an intense public debate, contributing to raise awareness among decision-makers and the general public, was the organisation in Phnom Penh of the 11th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (6-9 March 2001). This Committee, which meets regularly once every two years, was established by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1978 and is presently composed of 22 Member States. The Committee acts at an inter-governmental level as a forum for negotiation, discussion, training and awareness raising on the illicit traffic of cultural property, facilitating bilateral negotiations and promoting multilateral co-operation for the restitution or return of cultural property to its countries of origin. Additionally, it guides the planning and implementation of UNESCO's programmes of activities with regard to the illicit traffic of cultural artefacts.

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