Feeding the war: illicit trafficking in cultural goods

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LONDON - The question that many have been asking following the recent well documented destructions and acts of vandalism on cultural heritage is whether the trafficking in antiquities pillaged from the Middle East and North Africa regions is providing funding for insurgent groups active in conflict areas.
On the one side we have a situation where international communities feel outraged at the destruction of art and cultural heritage and on the other hand we know that trafficking in illegal antiquities is fed by the demand for such spoils on the international markets. Recently the United States returned to Iraq over 60 cultural artefacts after investigations determined that the items had been stolen from the country and were being sold on the international antiquities market. US investigators uncovered an international organisation trafficking looted items that were often shipped to museums , galleries and art houses in New York , according to the office of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcements. Systematic malpractices relating to the acquisition and sale of looted antiquities have been uncovered and are well documented; these practices relate to both auction houses, private dealers and, sadly, museums.
In 2014 UNESCO effectively banned the export of antiquities and published United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 that condemns the destruction of cultural heritage and promotes legal measures to counter the illicit trafficking of antiquities from Iraq and Syria. The resolution targets Islamic State revenues, and threatens to place economic and diplomatic sanctions against countries and individuals that enable terrorist groups to profit from trade in antiquities, oil, and hostages.
Illicit trafficking in cultural goods is a complex and vast issue. Trafficking happens when cultural objects are illegally removed from their rightful place to be sold on the black market internationally. Thefts from museums, monuments, religious sites and other public or privately held places of conservation are all included in the definition together with Illicit excavations of archaeological objects (including underwater excavations), removal of cultural property during armed conflicts or military occupation, illicit export and import of cultural property, illegal transfer of ownership of cultural property often involving the production, trade and use of forged documentation.
Is there a strategy to successfully combat and stop the illicit trafficking in cultural objects?
According to the major international organisations devoted to the protection of heritage there are a number of strategies that can be pursued to help achieve this goal. Museums must be active players in the fight against illicit traffic and should adopt rules in terms of the acquisition and transfer of collections, according to the ICOM Ethics Code for Museums.
ICOM’s International Committees contribute to this mission by training their personnel to protect heritage, offering tools to create inventories of collections and publishing international guidelines for security.
International partnerships are crucial in the fight against illicit traffic in cultural property. The sharing of information and experience, the organisation of awareness-raising campaigns, the development of training programmes for law enforcement authorities and the dissemination of publications on illicit trade are all activities that need support.
Establishment of an International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods
Started in January 2013, the Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods was initially conceived as a three-year project at the initiative of ICOM and with the financial support of the Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme of the European Commission’s Directorate-General Home Affairs.
The Observatory is a long-term international co-operative platform network between law enforcement agencies, research institutions and other external expert stakeholders; an information databank for the network and the public through a Website and a triennial Global Report and an innovative tool that will contribute to preventing and fighting the illegal trade in cultural property and related crimes at both national and international levels. It now has a dedicated website publicly available aiming to centralise and disseminate resources and instruments relating to the illicit traffic in cultural goods and the means to fight it.
For more information on the Observatory, visit http://obs-traffic.museum