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Cultural Property: Current Problems Meet Established Law

April 8, 2015

By: Tess Davis

A Conference jointly presented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania

Thursday 26 March 2015 – Friday 27 March 2015

As the looting and destruction of archaeological sites and museums reaches unprecedented levels in Iraq and Syria — a crisis that Egypt, UNESCO, the Middle East Institute, and the Antiquities Coalition will be tackling head on in Cairo next month — the role of law in mitigating these atrocities has never been more significant.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP) explored this topic at their 6th annual conference, “Cultural Property: Current Problems Meet Established Law,” last week in Philadelphia. This event, graciously hosted by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania, sought to address a wide range of heritage issues — from treasure hunting and underwater looting, to collecting ethics among museums, to emergency responses in times of conflict. The conference assembled a group of highly regarded speakers including lawyers, curators, archaeologists, scholars, and Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis.

The first keynote address was given by Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, Distinguished Research Professor of Law at DePaul University, on the adequacy of US law, policy, and practice in preventing the looting and trafficking of antiquities. Dr. Gerstenblith surveyed the current state of the field, highlighting key cases in the courts, and illustrating the top legal tools for combatting cultural racketeering. The second keynote address was delivered by Dr. Mariano J. Aznar-Gomez of the University of Jaume I in Castellon, Spain and is legal expert on the protection of underwater cultural heritage for the Spanish Government. Dr. Aznar-Gomez investigated the compatibility of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001, demonstrating how policymakers can prevent underwater looting in accordance with both Conventions.

The other panels included topics such as archaeological site looting and the legal response from Cambodia to Iraq to Spain and beyond, both terrestrial and underwater. This was followed by a lunchtime discussion on collecting ethics and the museum response to the legal environment by three museum directors and senior curators. The discussion then turned to methods and responsibilities to due diligence in provenance research and finally to how the law may enable international support in the case of Syria.

The conference concluded on the note that criminal litigation, public awareness, and communication among those working in the heritage field are paramount in devising strategies to protect the world’s cultural heritage. It was also clear from the day’s proceedings that such strategies are needed more now than ever, as the world’s cultural heritage falls under increased attack from crime and conflict. Numerous speakers warned that the situation has reached crisis levels in the Middle East, with ISIS and other terrorist networks trafficking countless antiquities to fund their campaign, and destroying countless others for propaganda.

In response to this ongoing plunder, the Antiquities Coalition is partnering with the Arab Republic of Egypt, UNESCO, and the Middle East Institute to shut down ISIS funding from antiquities looting and trafficking. We will launch this initiative with an emergency conference in Cairo from May 13-14, 2015. Please stay tuned for more information about this 2015 Cairo Conference.

In the meantime, the Antiquities Coalition thanks the LCCHP and PCHC for last week’s informative event, and looks forward to their future collaborations!

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