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Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property

The 14th November 2020 marked the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. InsSciDE is unique in that it explores science diplomacy in cultural heritage, from supporting its protection and preservation to fostering sustainable and just relations between international scientists, local communities and cultural professionals. Therefore, we celebrate the occasion with an overview of the challenges of protecting cultural heritage and preventing its illicit trafficking.

Illicit excavations of archaeological sites and the sale of plundered and stolen antiquities to the art market is a serious threat to the archaeological heritage in many world regions. The Middle East, with its millennia-old culture and its rich and varied heritage, is particularly vulnerable, especially in times of violent conflict and the collapse or weakening of state institutions in several nations. Decline in tourism and decreased security due to the Covid-19 pandemic further aggravates the challenges of guarding against theft and illicit excavations. InsSciDE, project partner UNESCO and the European Commission share common objectives in this challenge, each working to build understanding, foster cooperation and innovate to better preserve and protect the world’s cultural heritage.

InsSciDE explores science diplomacy for heritage, Work Package 4 (WP Heritage)

InsSciDE’s Heritage experts, Alexander Pruss and Pascal Butterlin, are specialized in Near East archaeology and draw on direct field experience in Iraq and Syria to reveal weaknesses of traditional European diplomacy and deliberate the role of science diplomacy in rebuilding both the region and relationships.

Their work is supplemented by innovative start-up ICONEM, specialized in the digitization of endangered cultural heritage sites in 3D. The company combines large-scale scanning capacity of drones and the photorealistic quality of 3D to create digital replicas of the world’s most treasured places.

The proceeds from illegal trafficking of Middle Eastern antiquities are often used to finance terrorist groups and international criminal organizations. WP Heritage has dealt with, among other issues, the impact of plundering of heritage sites in the Middle East and of the illicit trade with antiquities from these sites during a workshop held at the Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany in September 2019. The plundering of archaeological sites has already irrecoverably destroyed many of them. In the workshop, Elie Cavigneaux from the office of the EU counter-terrorism coordinator and Michael Müller-Karpe from the RGZM museum at Mainz highlighted the fact that practically all antiquities of Middle Eastern origin available on the art market were plundered or stolen and illegally removed from their country of origin. Illegally transferred Middle Eastern antiquities do not only appear as spectacular and obvious cases of smuggled ancient artefacts detected in arriving passengers’ baggage at the airports, but also at the display windows of antiquities dealers and in the catalogues of renowned auction houses. It is thus necessary to call the attention of lawmakers, customs and police officers and the public to the extent of the problem.

International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property and the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention

The first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property, 14 November, seeks to raise awareness of the scale of the problem and highlight the invaluable nature of the stolen goods.

The launch year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Convention emphasizes the importance of international cooperation in locating, retrieving, and restituting stolen cultural heritage and calls on signatories to establish and maintain inventories of cultural property. However, its charter still has to be fully implemented in national and international law and incorporated into the conduct of law enforcement institutions to unfold its full extent of protection.

The Day was accompanied by an online conference, 16-18 November, on multilateralism in the protection of cultural heritage, organized by the German Federal Foreign Office in partnership with UNESCO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. A recording is available of day 1.

Cultural heritage protection and the EU

In a recent report submitted to the November conference, the ECDPM and EEAS* dissect the case of Iraq to define the role of the EU in protecting cultural heritage in conflict zones. The report supports multidisciplinary action involving local actors and communities, advocates human dignity as a central element and recognizes the EU’s ability to contribute valuable expertise and guidance for enhancing heritage protection.

WP Heritage’s focus on archaeological research and cooperation in conflict zones complements the external dimension of the EU’s agenda on cultural heritage. The EU’s position and strategy are more broadly outlined in the ‘New European Agenda for Culture’ of 2018 and includes objectives of promoting intercultural dialogue for peace and reinforcing cooperation on cultural heritage with the Middle East.

In terms of international relations, the document envisions cultural cooperation projects, especially pursuing innovative solutions, to help protect and rehabilitate damaged cultural heritage and reaffirms a commitment to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It identifies cultural diplomacy as a valuable ’new field’ for EU external action, which InsSciDE Heritage supplements by providing in-depth insights into the multiple ties and mutual influences between foreign and local cultural experts, archaeological scientists, diplomatic actors, politicians and civic society.

* European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), financed by the European External Action Service (EEAS)

Dive into WP Heritage’s objectives, case study pitches and an interview with case study author Butterlin to learn more about what science diplomacy means in the protection of cultural heritage!


Published 19 November 2020
Written by WP Heritage and Daniella Palmberg

Celebrating the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property

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