"From Baghdad to Cairo – combating trafficking in cultural property" - 'Mondes, les cahiers du Quai d’Orsay', France
Amid the protests that shook Egypt in the early months of 2011, several hundred young Egyptians spontaneously formed human chains around the Cairo Museum and the Library of Alexandria to deter those who would take advantage of the unrest to loot the invaluable collections. The civic sense of a population determined to protect its heritage testifies admirably to the immense value of culture for the identity, dignity and self-image of a people.
Culture is much more than a tradable commodity. Cultural properties are significant not only because of their market value or scientific import; they embody history and identity. The looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property erode the cement that holds communities and societies together. They cause irreversible damage that lastingly affects the ability of societies to develop, take shape, and recover from crises. We saw this in Afghanistan, with the destruction of the Buddha statues of the Bamiyan Valley 10 years ago. We see it in Iraq and Haiti. We now fear it may happen, in the Middle East. Away from the media spotlight, criminals are hard at work at deserted archaeological sites, sometimes exploiting the poverty of populations that are ill-informed or forced to sell off their heritage.
The Baghdad Museum, one of the world’s richest museums, was stripped of some 15,000 objects, two thirds of which have yet to be recovered. Before the major campaign to safeguard Angkor got under way in the early 2000s, one statue on average was stolen or vandalized daily in the vicinity of the temples of this Cambodian World Heritage site. Some countries in Africa have been despoiled of a large part of their heritage, scattered to the four winds of the black market.
For more than 65 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been at the forefront of international efforts to safeguard the world’s cultural heritage. In the early days of the demonstrations in Egypt, UNESCO, alerted of the risks of looting at the Cairo Museum, asked the national authorities and international art dealers and collectors in neighbouring countries to exercise the utmost vigilance in doing business in Egyptian cultural goods imported, exported or offered for sale.
Heritage preservation in practice involves the implementation of several international conventions, particularly the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (including its Second Protocol of 1999) and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
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