As long as there have been tombs, there have been tomb raiders, but in this modern world, such destruction is taking place on a scale never before seen in history. Cultural racketeering — the organized looting and trafficking of art and antiquities — has become a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that spans the globe and thrives during crisis. Thieves, smugglers, and war profiteers are not the only ones to profit: By purchasing Cambodian statue, a Mayan vase, or an Egyptian papyrus on Madison Avenue, collectors may be lining the pockets of drug cartels, armed insurgencies, and even terrorist networks.
While this illicit trade itself poses a serious threat to global security, it often goes hand in hand with cultural cleansing, the deliberate and systematic destruction of a targeted group and their heritage. As we have witnessed in genocides throughout the twentieth century, cultural cleansing aims to eliminate not only a people, but all evidence of them. It is a recognized atrocity crime, and moreover, a harbinger of impending crimes against humanity and war crimes.