10.03.2011 - UNESCOPRESS

40 years of fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural goods

Trafficking of cultural goods is among the main criminal activities in the world in financial terms together with the illicit trade in weapons and drugs, according to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). According to some sources it amounts to US$ 6 billion, but it is difficult to verify this figure, because of the illicit nature of this trade.

The plundering of archaeological sites, the illicit trafficking of religious objects, the unprecedented growth of the global art market, as well as crime linked to the circulation of cultural goods and to their sale for the financing of terrorist activities, are major concerns for the international community. Thus, several African countries have lost more than half their cultural heritage, which is today scattered in public and private collections outside the continent. Another example: since 1975, hundreds of Buddha statues from the temples of Cambodia have been forcibly removed, mutilated or decapitated. UNESCO estimates that this type of vandalism takes place at least once a day.

To meet these challenges, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 40 years ago. Currently ratified by 120 States, it marked the first international recognition of the fact that cultural goods are not goods like any others.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Convention, UNESCO will organize a seminar in Paris on 15 and 16 March. Participants will analyse the devastation wrought by trafficking, which is rife all around the world, assess measures currently implemented and propose ways to improve these at the international and States level. Besides representatives of Member States, participants will include representatives of the organizations involved in the fight against trafficking - INTERPOL, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT), the World Customs Organization, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) - and representatives of auction houses such as Sotheby’s and museums such the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the National Museum of Mali.

“Theft, destruction, plundering and smuggling of cultural objects endanger the cultural identity of peoples,” said Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. “The preservation of cultural heritage and the fight against this scourge are issues of common interest, which require shared ethical values. This is why action aimed at fighting illicit trafficking must be taken at every level: national and international, individual and collective, by governments and civil society.”

The Convention focuses on three areas: it requires States Parties to adopt preventative measures at a national level (appropriate legislation, inventories, information campaigns, staff training, etc.); it includes provisions for restitution, according to which States are committed to taking appropriate measures to seize and return illegally imported cultural goods; it offers a framework of international cooperation, so as to fight trafficking more effectively.

However, this innovative legal instrument concerns a fast-changing activity: in recent years, the trade in cultural goods on the Internet has become a very lucrative business, and it is on the Internet that most trafficking takes place. UNESCO therefore intends take advantage of the 40th anniversary to review the history of the Convention, appraise its achievements, its strong points and its weaknesses.

A few facts:  

                 - In Central America, illegal excavations lead to the extraction of at least 1,000 Maya ceramic objects every month, with an estimated value of 10 million dollars.

                 - During the war in Iraq, approximately 15,000 objects were stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad. Around 2,000 were recovered in the United States, 250 in Switzerland and 100 in Italy. Nearly 2,000 other objects were found in Jordan and others in Lebanon, but more than half are still missing.

                 - Between illegal excavation and final sale, the value of some objects is multiplied by one hundred, which is a higher margin than in drug trafficking.

                 - Some North American museums have modified their acquisition policies in keeping with the 1970 Convention. Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Boston Museum and the Getty Gallery have returned some 120 objects to their countries of origin, notably to Italy, Greece and Turkey.

                  - From 2002 to 2011, Egypt succeeded in recovering around 5,000 objects of illicit provenance. However, during recent events, several sites of major importance were vandalized, among them tombs in Saqqara and Abusir and at least nine artefacts were stolen from the National Museum in Cairo.

The following persons will notably participate in the colloquium: Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO; Bernd Rossbach, Manager of the Specialized Crime and Analysis Unit at INTERPOL; Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist; Stéphane Martin, the President of the Musée du quai Branly; Jose Angelo Estrella Faria, Secretary-General of UNIDROIT; John Scanlon, the Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); Cecilia Bákula, Ambassador of Peru to UNESCO and former Director of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura del Perú; Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki, General Director of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage at the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and distinguished specialists such as Professor Lyndel V. Prott (Australia), Prosecutor Paolo Ferri (Italy) and Dr Ridha Fraoua (Switzerland).


                    A press conference will take place on 15 March at 12.15 p.m.

                          Journalists wishing to attend must be accredited


          Isabelle le Fournis, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 17 48 / i.le-fournis(at)unesco.org

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