Cultural Memoranda of Understanding: An Important Diplomatic Tool for Protecting Heritage
July 17, 2017
By Deborah Lehr
Crossposted from the Huffington Post
As the world’s largest art market, the United States is the premier destination for the legitimate trade in art and antiquities—but also for its darker counterpart—the illicit trade.
Since the Arab Spring triggered organized looting and trafficking throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and others have voiced their frustration over the unregulated sale of their heritage in the United States and the difficulty in halting this illicit trade.
Fortunately, the U.S. State Department has now taken a proactive approach to educating countries about what steps they can take to better ensure that looted antiquities do not enter the United States.
The best tool in their diplomatic arsenal is the cultural memorandum of understanding (MOU). The United States has the authority to enter such agreements imposing import restrictions on designated archaeological and ethnological material coming into the country through the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which is based on the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. These MOUs have benefits for all parties.
Despite their heritage being under siege since 2011, only one MENA country has signed a cultural heritage agreement with the United States—the Arab Republic of Egypt. But that is soon to change, we hope.
The government of Libya has submitted a request for the U.S. government to restrict imports of their patrimony. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee—which counsels the State Department on matters of heritage—will hear arguments on July 19-20 regarding whether the Libyans’ request holds merit.
These agreements are an effective tool in limiting the illegal trade while promoting cultural exchanges. And given the crisis that Libya is facing, we urge the Committee to make an expeditious decision.