27.11.2012 - ODG

Halting trafficking in cultural property - Cumhuriyet (Turkey)

Article published in Cumhuriyet (Turkey) on 27 November 2012.

The rapid advance of globalization has led to the unprecedented movement of goods, people and cultures. Cultural relations and identity issues are taking hold – permanently – at the forefront of international relations. This provides a new opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding, on the condition that respect for all cultures is guaranteed, in particular by combating the pillaging of and trafficking in cultural property, which are currently developing at high speed, spurred by the destabilization of societies in crisis and the greed of those seeking fortune by helping themselves to the heritage of others.

It is time we opened our eyes to the extent of this trafficking – one of major criminal activities worldwide alongside arms and drugs trafficking – and to its impact on international relations. Cultural goods are not mere commodities: they carry a history and values. They reflect people’s identity. Looting and smuggling these goods is therefore a crime against people's identity, affecting their cohesion, their dignity, their likelihood of development and their participation in the concert of nations by depriving them of a part of themselves.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been in the vanguard of action to combat trafficking in cultural property for more than 65 years. The 1970 UNESCO Convention is the founding instrument of international efforts to halt it, and it is certainly no accident that this Convention was the first international legal instrument for the protection of culture in peacetime – two years before the adoption of the World Heritage Convention. Respect for the cultural heritage of others is indicative of mutual respect among nations. When a country emerges economically or politically, it seeks to share its culture and demands the return of cultural property that was stolen in the course of its history.

All countries of South-East Europe have ratified the 1970 Convention and are taking action against trafficking, on the premise that respect for cultural heritage speeds up reconciliation and regional integration. UNESCO, in cooperation with partners such as INTERPOL, UNIDROIT, the World Customs Organization and specialized national police units, regularly organizes training workshops, such as the one held last week in Gaziantep (Turkey), to build the anti-trafficking capacities of professionals, customs and police officers.

UNESCO acts, but cannot act alone. The media play an important role in documenting the extent of the phenomenon and in alerting public opinion, which is often too lenient toward looters portrayed as treasure hunters.

These awareness-raising programmes are critical to advancing cultural cooperation, including cases not directly relating to the Convention or cultural property exported before its entry into force. The recent bilateral agreement between Germany and Turkey for the return of the Bogazkoy Sphinx, with the assistance of UNESCO, is a prime example. While the case concerned Turkish cultural property sent to Germany before 1970, before the Convention entered into force, the matter was nonetheless settled in accordance with the principles and expertise developed through the Convention and under the auspices of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. The sphinx was thus returned to Turkey in November 2011 and exhibited at the Bogazkoy Museum.

This type of agreement always affords an opportunity for a symbolic and political rapprochement between nations. It can help to strengthen the sense of mutual respect, and that is a valuable tool for our globalized world. UNESCO will always support those who wish to circulate and share heritage, to make it known to the world as a pillar of mutual understanding. Such sharing must nonetheless be done in a spirit of cooperation, voluntarily and for the benefit of all. There is no future for trafficking and the unscrupulous spoliation of the heritage of humanity. Our cultural resources are our best allies in boosting creativity, innovation and social cohesion. We must take care of them for ourselves and for future generations.

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