Unprecedented Forum Unites Global Government Leaders with Archaeology, Art, Museum Communities in Fight Against “Cultural Cleansing”

Middle East Institute Antiquities Coalition Asia Society


NEW YORK (September 25, 2015) – At the Culture Under Threat forum held at the Asia Society headquarters in New York, Foreign Ministers and senior government officials from around the world joined leaders of arts institutions, archaeological associations, and experts in terrorism to stop the looting and trafficking of antiquities, and halt a major source of funding for terrorism.

Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Australia, as well as ambassadors and senior officials from Cambodia, Thailand, Italy, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia joined diverse experts in an unprecedented high-level, multi-sector forum to seek solutions to this black-market trade in “blood antiquities,” which has reached crisis proportions in the Middle East. The group of government, private-sector and NGO representatives, each with distinct roles to play in stemming the illicit trade, was convened by the Asia Society, the Antiquities Coalition, UNESCO, and the Middle East Institute.

“Culture has always been the victim of war, but what we see today is new,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. “New in scale and in nature, because we believe that attacks against heritage and culture are in fact attacks against people, against their identities, against their human rights. They are attacks against the humanity we all share.”

“We have to deal with this crisis by uniting,” said Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “We have to go beyond alarm, shock, and condemnation. The time has come for us to unite towards a more proactive approach and translate words into deeds before it is too late.”

Jordan is coordinating an initiative with Italy to build support for United Nations action to halt the trade in conflict antiquities.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who has played a leading role in this fight, told the gathering that, “terrorists use the destruction of cultural heritage as a tactic of war to terrify populations, to finance terrorist activities, and to spread hatred.” He added, “the responsibility to confront these terrorist criminal acts lies with the international community, including governments, international and regional organizations, museums, the art market, archeologists, media, and all others who are interested in preserving this heritage for humanity.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari put it bluntly: “I believe that terrorism is seeking to destroy history,” he said, “and seeking to abolish our future.”

The host organizations issued a “Call to Action” for the international community to join forces in a strategic effort to halt the trade in conflict antiquities and, in doing so, cut off potential sources of terrorist revenue.

“We are witnessing not only the murder of people, but the murder of culture,” said Asia Society Policy Institute President and former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd. “We must act together, now.”

The coordinated appeal calls for:

• The United Nations to formulate action plans to address “cultural cleansing”
• The International Criminal Court to launch a war crimes investigation against those entities that engage in “cultural cleansing”
• The international community, to support states in protecting, preserving, and documenting items of cultural heritage endangered by armed conflicts
• A global campaign to raise awareness about the purchase of conflict antiquities and terrorist financing
• All governments to take steps to prevent the trade in conflict antiquities
• All actors involved in the cultural property trade to be vigilant when obtaining antiquities from countries in conflict
The participants discussed a range of potential solutions to the crisis, including possible “boots on the ground” to provide site protection; a tightening of national and international laws against looting and trafficking; establishing a moratorium on the trade in conflict antiquities; a so-called “asylum for heritage” plan to safeguard treasures in parts of Syria and Iraq; the creation of national inventories – and, longer-term, a “digital archive” of cultural treasures for the Middle East; and the creation of organizations such as “Archaeologists without Borders” to support countries in crisis with additional resources.

“The presence of such a distinguished group of international experts demonstrates the necessary political will exists to address this crisis,” said Deborah Lehr, chair and co-founder of the Antiquities Coalition and co-chair of the forum. “Our intent is to unite our efforts and seek meaningful, practical solutions that will bring a halt to the trade in conflict antiquities and cut off funding for extremist organizations.”

Josette Sheeran, the Asia Society President and event co-chair, speaking of what she called the trade in “blood antiquities,” added: “These sites are for no one person or group to take, to remove, to destroy, to pillage, to steal, or to covet for themselves, or to use as fuel for death, or terror or destruction.”

The “Culture Under Threat” forum builds on the May 2015 Cairo Declaration, signed by Ministers from ten Middle East and North African countries, that outlined a regional strategy to combat the trafficking of looted antiquities and its links to terrorist financing.

“In tragedy there is opportunity,” added Middle East Institute Senior Vice President Kate Seelye. “This issue allows and even compels east and west to work together to fight for our shared humanity,”

At the start of the session, Director General Bokova, led a moment of silence to remember Khalid al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist beheaded by the Islamic State. Bokova noted that “culture today is on the front line of conflict, and it also should be at the heart of all the security, humanitarian and peace building measures.”
For more about this unprecedented forum, see the Asia Society blog HERE.

Media contact: Sarah Courtney at press@wcsemail.com.

The Asia Society Announces September Summit with the Antiquities Coalition to Tackle Cultural Racketeering

Press Release from the Asia Society

NEW YORK, August 4, 2015 — Asia Society is pleased to join UNESCO, the Antiquities Coalition and the Middle East Institute in a special high-level forum in New York City on September 24, 2015 titled “Culture Under Threat: The Security, Economic and Cultural Impact of Antiquities Trafficking and Terrorist Financing.”

The forum is part of a major new initiative to find regional solutions to the recent surge in the destruction and looting of antiquities across the Middle East. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, His Excellency the Foreign Minister of Iraq Dr. Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd will deliver remarks. Asia Society President Josette Sheeran and Antiquities Coalition Chairman Deborah Lehr will serve as co-chairs and hosts of this historic event, which will feature delegations from the nations most affected by the theft and destruction of these treasures, as well as the heads of leading cultural organizations. The forum will feature the keynote addresses, public discussion, and a private dialogue to chart action for the future. All events will be held from 8:30am-11:30am at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue in New York.

It has been a time of particular turmoil in the Middle East. While the loss of human life resulting from instability is tragic, so are the attacks by militants and organized criminals on local cultures, and the damage done to some of the great treasures of antiquity. The destruction of historic sites and looting of antiquities are now widespread across the Middle East, from Egypt to Iraq to Syria and Libya – the region on which the foundations of human civilization were laid. These attacks constitute a form of “cultural terrorism” – indeed some are calling them “war crimes” – and the illicit trafficking of these antiquities is being used to fund the causes of terrorist and criminal networks.

What can leaders in the region, international agencies, and the heads of global cultural organizations do to reverse these attacks against our shared history and heritage? This gathering will focus on answers that question – whether they involve diplomacy or law enforcement, education or military action, or some combination. The forum will convene the finest minds and most effective policymakers to the table, to at least begin to find answers to this pressing global problem.

Beyond the guests listed above, among those already confirmed for the “Culture Under Threat” forum:

Ahmed Abdulkariem, Chairman, Department of Antiquities, Libya; Roger Bagnall, Leon Levy Director, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University; Anita Difanis, Director of Government Affairs, Association of Art Museum Directors; Amy Freitag, Executive Director, J.M. Kaplan Fund; Charles J. Henry, President, Council on Library and Information Resources; Josh Knerly, Partner, Hahn, Loeser & Parker; Amy Landau, Associate Curator of Islamic and South Asian Art, The Walters Art Museum; Edward Liebow, Executive Director, American Anthropological Association; Ken Lustbader, Program Director of Historic Preservation, J.M. Kaplan Fund; David MacKay, Partner and Head of U.S. Operations, Portland Communications; Emily K. Rafferty, President Emerita, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Maggie Salem, Executive Director, Qatar Foundation International; Patrick Sears, Executive Director, Rubin Museum of Art; Brigadier General Hugh Van Roosen, Director, Institute for Military Governance (IMSG), U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School; and Karol Wight, President and Executive Director, Corning Museum of Glass.

“Culture Under Threat” will build on issues raised at a conference in Cairo in May, 2015, at which officials from the Middle and Near East pledged to take several initial steps:

• The creation of a “Cultural Racketeering Task Force” consisting of senior representatives from various countries to coordinate regional and international efforts to protect cultural property and prevent smuggling and repatriate stolen artifacts;

• The establishment of an International Advisory Committee to provide advice and support for the task force on ways to fight cultural destruction and illicit trafficking;

• The launch of an awareness campaign in so-called “demand countries” to discourage purchases of looted antiquities;

• Various possible regional and international partnerships to address various aspects of the problem.

For further information about this event, contact pr@asiasociety.org.