On January 20, 2022, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard and Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed signed a bilateral cultural property agreement, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade.
This agreement closes U.S. borders to illegally acquired or exported Nigerian antiquities. By partnering with the United States, the world’s largest art market, Nigeria’s cultural heritage will enjoy stronger protections, while at the same time, American consumers will also be protected from unknowingly buying stolen property. The partnership will ideally cut down the global demand for illicit cultural items from Nigeria and return some already lost to their rightful home
The AC spoke with Dr. Leslye Obiora, Professor of Law at the University of Arizona to learn more about the benefits of this agreement.
Can you give an overview of the recent Cultural Property Agreement between the United States and Nigeria, and explain why it is important?
The Cultural Property Agreement between the United States and Nigeria is intended to strengthen bilateral cooperation to advance shared interests and to accomplish the following main objectives:
- Facilitate robust collaboration between U.S. and Nigerian federal law enforcement and border control agencies to identify, intercept, repatriate, and protect cultural and heritage property.
- Promote the exchange of archaeological materials for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes with the aim of increasing public awareness for Nigerian cultural heritage.
This agreement is a major milestone in global efforts and partnerships to preserve, restore, and protect diverse categories of cultural heritage from pillage and trafficking. The United States ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The US implements its obligations under this Convention through the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2613. This legislation authorizes the President of the United States to enter into bilateral Cultural Property Agreements (CPA) with other State Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The CPA is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs through the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). In 2020, Nigeria requested a Memorandum of Understanding for import restrictions to protect its rich and diverse cultural property. The CPAC reviewed and recommended Nigeria’s request for approval. This process culminated in the recent adoption of the Cultural Property Agreement.
Nigeria has a rich cultural heritage. Can you give us some examples and explain why Nigerian cultural heritage needs protections like the CPA?
As the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, observed cogently at the signing ceremony of the CPA, the rich tapestry of Nigeria’s cultural heritage is exemplified by the unique Nok terracotta dating back to the fifth century B.C. and the incomparable bronzes that once decorated the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin.
There are intrinsic, instrumental, and constructive values in protecting cultural and heritage property from illicit trade. The international human rights agenda protects the Nigerians’ right to culture, individually and collectively. Similarly, heritage property are a global public good. From an instrumental perspective, protecting and preserving cultural heritage through cultural property agreements promote stability, economic development, good governance, inter alia. Constitutively, the CPA contributes to enable environment and deepen opportunities for international learning, exchange, and cooperation. The global dialogue heightened by the continuing returns of the Benin Bronzes corroborate the enormous value of promoting cultural diplomacy and capture the growing grassroots conditions galvanizing the momentum for such dialogue in ways that compel State Parties to fulfill their treaty obligations. While the CPA is a major achievement, it is notable that it was signed more than half a century after the 1970 UNESCO Convention came into existence.