#CultureUnderThreat: Three Years Later
April 18, 2019
In the vacuum of political instability and breakdown of security created by the 2011 Arab Spring, the world faced a cultural heritage crisis, as violent extremist organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa transformed archaeological, historic, and religious sites into a weapon of war and terrorist financing tool. Plundered, damaged, and often razed to the ground, cultural patrimony that had survived, unshakeable, for millennia disappeared in the blink of an eye.
In response to this growing emergency, the Antiquities Coalition, the Middle East Institute, and the Asia Society convened a multidisciplinary group of experts to explore solutions and serve as an ongoing resource to policymakers. Their resulting 2016 report, #CultureUnderThreat: Recommendations for the U.S. Government, called for new policies, practices, and priorities for U.S. policymakers, the international community, and the art market to reduce heritage destruction and looting, end impunity for cultural crimes, and sever this key source of funding for violent extremist groups.
Since then, we have seen significant progress on multiple fronts, though in some instances regression to policies that fail to protect our cultural heritage and collective security.
The Federal Government
The Antiquities Coalition commends the United States for closing borders to Syrian antiquities by way of the “Protect and Preserve Cultural Property Act” (H.R. 1493/S. 1887), codified in May 2016. This bill was a critical step in implementing UNSC Resolutions 2199 and 2253, and furthermore compelled the Department of State to establish a Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee, an unprecedented inter-agency partnership. Indeed, a recent uptick in cultural bilateral agreements processed by the Department of State reveals a heightened awareness of both antiquities trafficking as national security risk, and import restrictions as an opportunity for strengthened partnerships between countries of origin and the United States.
The Department of Defense (DOD) continues to collaborate with the United States Committee of the Blue Shield and partners to develop and utilize no-strike lists throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and has extended these efforts to include no-loot materials for troops stationed in South and Central America. The department nevertheless still lacks an institutionalized approach to cultural property resource management and protection training. However, pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, the department has designated a DOD Coordinator for Cultural Heritage, tasked with managing existing obligations for the protection of cultural heritage and overseeing a DOD coordinating committee for the protection of heritage.
Although the Department of Justice has made positive inroads in prosecuting cultural property crimes, it too lacks an agency-wide approach. The majority of cases result still in seizure and repatriation, rather than criminal prosecution. However, recent efforts by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement reveal the difference even a few dedicated attorneys and agents can make.
The International Community
In the international realm, the United Nations has increasingly highlighted the intersection of heritage and human rights, as well as the role of heritage protection in peace and security. UNSC Resolution 2347, passed in March 2017, is the first to focus exclusively on the role of cultural patrimony. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court prosecution of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi has set an important precedent for subsequent investigations into deliberate or reckless destruction of cultural heritage. However, the removal of cultural heritage from the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations mission in Mali represents a significant step back. Likewise, the United States’ withdrawal from UNESCO in January 2019 signals a disappointing unwillingness to lead in matters of cultural heritage protection around the world.
The Art Market
The art market has progressively drawn attention to its own vulnerability to suspicious trade practices, attributable to its unusually high volume of legally questionable transactions. However, the market continues to lag in proactive steps to not only prevent antiquities trafficking, but also protect individual and institutional collectors from unknowingly dealing in looted antiquities, fakes, and forgeries. Recent multi-industry initiatives in Europe, as well as a legislative push for improved market regulation in the United States, have begun to pave the way for change
The following update, published on the three-year anniversary of the original report, details the status of each original recommendation, highlighting successes and identifying future challenges in this ongoing fight. We urge the United States government, international policymakers, and art market stakeholders to continue to utilize and build upon these recommendations as a roadmap for action in the continuous effort to prevent cultural crimes around the world.