Bilateral agreements, or memoranda of understanding (MOUs), between demand (“market”) countries and supply (“source”) countries are an effective tool in discouraging the illicit trade in antiquities. Many foreign governments are unaware that this MOU option is required to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention or do not understand how to pursue it. The United States should proactively educate foreign nations about bilateral agreements, including why they are needed, how they work, and what the application process is. This is especially important for countries whose cultural heritage is at risk (or may soon be at risk) from armed conflict or violent extremist organizations. It is critical that the MOU process be transparent to all, and handled in an efficient and effective manner.
The 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) grants the President authority to enter such agreements imposing U.S. import restrictions on designated archaeological and ethnological material. To date, the United States has signed MOUs with 17 nations and imposed emergency actions with similar terms for Iraq and Syria. Our interactive timeline provides a detailed history of the United States’ cultural bilateral agreements and emergency actions. However, these emergency actions aside, Egypt and Libya are the only MENA nations with bilateral agreements with the United States. Given the ongoing crises in the region—and the threat they pose to both our shared history and global security—this must change.
These MOUs benefit all parties. The restriction of imports of undocumented cultural goods to the United States would significantly constrain global black market, given the U.S. position as a leading market for art and antiquities. From the U.S. perspective, MOUs serve the United States’ interest in decreasing international criminal activity, while strengthening relationships with its allies.