Celebrate 50 years of fight against illicit trafficking


In 2020, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property celebrates its 50th anniversary

Adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 14 November 1970, this Convention provides an international framework for the prevention of theft and looting and the return and return of stolen cultural property, in parallel with other advances in the fight against illicit trafficking.

Strengthening legal tools

With ratifications from Bulgaria, Ecuador and Nigeria, the Convention entered into force on 24 April 1972. It is the first instrument of international law for the protection of cultural property during peacetime.

Later, in 1978, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Promotion of the Return of Cultural Property to their Country of Origin or its Restitution in the Event of Illegal Appropriation (ICPRCP) was created to deal specifically with the return or restitution of pillaged or lost cultural property, in particular for those cases occurring before the entry into force of the 1970 Convention. During these first years of existence and faced with the growing scourge of illicit traffic, the importance of the Convention continued to grow. In addition, the imperatives of international cooperation and preventive measures specific to the Convention aroused the interest of States Parties, which then increased to 43 in 1980.

Another major advance took place in 1995 when the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) adopted the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. This new instrument, requested by UNESCO, stipulates that all stolen cultural property must be returned. In parallel, the 1970 Convention continued to progress. On its 30th anniversary in 2000, the 1970 Convention had 90 States Parties. Such adhesion encourages States Parties to persuade more countries to accede, as well as to facilitate and promote the Convention’s implementation. In 2012 another step is taken with the creation of the Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, which is composed of 18 States Parties elected for a four-year term who meet annually. The Subsidiary Committee promotes the objectives of the Convention, shares good practices and makes recommendations to combat the illicit traffic in cultural property.  UNESCO is also partnering with other international partners, mainly the International Council of Museums (ICOM), International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the World Customs Organization (WCO) to strengthen the implementation of the Convention. 

In 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2199 that prohibited the trade in cultural goods from Iraq and Syria. This resolution is part of efforts to end the funding of violent extremism through the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage in times of conflict. It was followed by Resolution 2347 in 2017, which was the first United Nations resolution dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage in situations of armed conflict, and exemplifies the central role of UNESCO in the protection of cultural heritage and in the promotion of culture, dialogue, and sustainable development that contributes to the 2030 Agenda.

Training and cultural cooperation

In addition to the work reinforcing legal aspects, many practical tools are developed by UNESCO and its partners. These efforts regarding preventive and awareness-raising measures support and encourage the constant fight against the illicit trafficking in cultural property. For example, the Database on National Cultural Heritage Laws, the Object ID form and the Model Export Certificate are concrete initiatives to assist States in their efforts.

In order to help countries build their capacities, improve their national laws and create inventories of their collections, UNESCO regularly organizes national and regional workshops, in collaboration with national authorities and specialists in cultural heritage. The training sessions often include the involvement of police and customs forces allowing all participants to benefit through increased coordination. These also serve to educate auction houses and art dealers on the issue of due diligence, as well as tourists and the general public on the need to be vigilant about the cultural objects they acquire.

In an interconnected world, States Parties are sharing more information and thereby strengthening international cooperation to dismantle trafficking routes and facilitate the restitution of cultural objects. All countries are concerned and there is a substantial  increase in the  global awareness of the fight against illicit trafficking, also reflected in the media.

Returns and restitutions

The ratification of the Convention has an added value for requests for returns and restitutions. For example, in 2006 the Islamic Republic of Iran filed a claim against the Barakat Gallery in London for the restitution of a 5,000-year-old collection of antiquities that had been removed from Iran after illegal excavations. In 2007, the Court of Appeal noted that Iran and the United Kingdom had both ratified the 1970 Convention, and recognized that states must help each other to prevent the illegal movement of cultural objects. The result created a clear precedent which made it possible to use provisions of the Convention in future cases of the same nature.

The return or restitution of cultural property does not necessarily have to be resolved in court. The application of the provisions on restitution also allows the seizure of cultural property illegally imported on their arrival at the borders. Among recent returns or restitutions that have been resolved in this way were:

The 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention is an opportunity for UNESCO, the 140 States Parties, and many partners and stakeholders to celebrate its achievements, encourage more action and strengthen the capacities of States Parties to fight against illicit traffic. This year will raise awareness in favour of ethical trade in the art market, reinforced by legal and operational measures. At the same time, and while taking stock of the main challenges of the Convention, there will be the question of what are the directions for the years to come?

In 2020, as UNESCO launches a communication campaign and organizes events in all regions of the world, these will culminate in the celebration of the International Day against Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property on 14 November  and an International Conference in Berlin, Germany, in November 2020. With the constant strengthening of its legal instruments, UNESCO continues to promote effective international cultural cooperation with its Member States. On this anniversary let us together celebrate 50 years of joint efforts to protect the cultural heritage of humanity.