UNESCO Director-General calls for stronger sanctions against trafficking and destruction of heritage

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Satellite images showing the extent of the damage inflicted to Nimrud (Iraq)
© CNES (2015), Distribution AIRBUS DS
13 January 2017

On 13 January 2017, the Director-General of UNESCO Irirna Bokova took part in a colloquy on offences related to Cultural Property organized jointly by the Cypriot chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and its Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, in Strasbourg, France. Representatives from international organizations and governments, as well as academic experts, discussed ways to strengthen co-operation to protect cultural heritage from destruction and illicit trafficking, including by organized crime and terrorist groups.

In her keynote speech, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova called for more coordination among all partners to bolster accountability for those who destroy heritage. “The destruction of heritage is a war crime, and it has become a tactic of war and propaganda to weaken resolve, to incite hatred and revenge … when ilicit trafficking is exploited to finance criminal activities, we must ensure everyone understands looting and trafficking is a criminal offense …The fight against impunity is clearly one of the key issues we must address, and one where our legal arsenal is the weakest.” she said.

Ioannis Kasoulides, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus recalled that "heritage protection is a means of enhancing security, and we must improve and harmonize legislation not only to safeguard heritage but with a view to enhance social cohesion and resilience."


UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova
© Candice Imbert/Council of Europe

"Illicit trafficking of cultural property is a criminal offense and it has also become a big business . Europe must get serious in the fight against this plague and our objective with this new instrument is to focus on criminal sanctions to complement existing instruments, such as the very important UNESCO 1970 Convention." said Mr. Jagland Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Mammoun Abdulkarim, Director-General of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, and Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, gave examples of the organized crime underway and the tools and legal means available to counter this, such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 (2015) on Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. They stressed that more international cooperation is needed to prevent illicit trafficking, as well as more stringent measures to deter would-be criminals.

The discussion will contribute to the preparatory work of a new Council of Europe Convention on offences related to cultural property, which considers criminal measures and sanctions that are needed in this field and aims to set international standards relating to national criminal law.

Such new international treaty could complement the existing UNESCO 1999 Second Protocol to the 1954 Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and UNIDROIT’s 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects

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Cyprus along with UNIDROIT are organising a seminar in New York on Promoting and Strengthening the international legal framework particularly on combating and preventing the trafficking of stolen and illegally exported artefacts and overcoming hindrances to their effective restitution, building on existing instruments such as Security Council Resolutions, the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995.