Experts Meet at UN on Unprecedented Destruction and Trafficking of Cultural Property

02 June 2016

Global experts on destruction and illegal trafficking of culture objects met on 27 May 2016 at the United Nations Headquarters for a meeting co-organized by UNESCO with the Permanent Missions of Jordan and Italy, INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Held in the framework of the partnership initiative “Protecting Cultural Heritage – an Imperative for Humanity: Acting together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist groups and organized crime,” the meeting brought together a wide array of stakeholders to discuss growing threats to cultural heritage.

Amjad Al-Moumani, Deputy Permanent Representative of Jordan, stressed the need to “increase the awareness of the international community around the serious issue of cultural heritage destruction as a security and humanitarian imperative.”  Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit at UNESCO, highlighted the current unprecedented levels of attacks against culture, which are often combined with the persecution of groups and individuals based on their cultural background and thus constitute "a cultural cleansing" as defined by UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova.  Michael Danti, Academic Director of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) cultural heritage initiatives, presented statistics around the intentional destruction, often for ideological reasons, in Syria and northern Iraq, which he qualified as “the greatest cultural heritage crisis since the Second World War.” 

Participants affirmed that cultural heritage provides an important foundation for national reconciliation and economic recovery, and that its protection should be included in any peacekeeping mandate and prioritized throughout the post-conflict period.  Gaps in the international response were identified, including the lack of documentation and inventory of the cultural assets destroyed, of efficient planning for emergency response and capacity, and of coordination at national and global levels.


Luigi Marini, Legal Advisor at the Permanent Mission of Italy, pointed to practical initiatives, urging States to ratify and implement the relevant international treaties*, establish national focal points and provide training on the issue of illicit trafficking of cultural property.  Stefan Simon, Inaugural Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale University further stressed the need for public-private partnerships, education and awareness-raising with civil society to accompany State action.

The linkages between the illegal trafficking of cultural property and financing of terrorist organizations was also discussed.  Edouard Planche of UNESCO said “prevention is paramount in fighting illicit trafficking,” and encouraged a more comprehensive use of the tools available such as inventories and model laws.  In this context Emmanuel Roux of INTERPOL called on governments, auction houses, museums and private collectors to use the INTERPOL database of stolen works of art and on the source countries of stolen objects to create special police units.  Nodirjon Ibragimov of UNODC highlighted that the restitution of stolen cultural property is mandated under the international law and in this framework, the effectiveness of the domestic procedures for enabling states to file a case in domestic courts is key.

This meeting was the last of a series, and will conclude with a High Level Meeting during the annual General Debate of the UN General Assembly in September 2016.

*The UNESCO 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; the UNESCO 1972 World Heritage Convention; and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

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