States stress cooperation in the fight against illicit trafficking and to promote the return of cultural property


From 28 to 31 May, 2018, two important meetings on combating illicit trafficking and on promoting the restitution of cultural property took place at UNESCO Headquarters.

On 28-29 May 2018, the Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention on the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural heritage met during its 6th session.  Representatives of international organizations, government authorities, police and customs officials, lawyers, archaeologists, museum directors and the private sector worked to strengthen cooperation and share good practices in implementing the 1970 Convention, and to take stock of the situation of heritage in the Middle East.

Countries in conflict zones, in particular Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, were a special focus as experts presented the challenges and initiatives to protect the local heritage at a time when destruction and trafficking have sharply risen.

“Iraq has been fighting terrorist organizations on behalf of the world, and has made sacrifices in this regard, we therefore need international organizations to stand by us to repair damaged cultural heritage sites and return the cultural property that was stolen” said Ali Al Taie, State Board of Antiquities of Iraq.

Mr Angelo Felicetti, United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (UNSMT), underscored the increasing globalization of trafficking, noting for example that “South America has become a new destination for antiquities illegally removed from Syria and other neighboring countries.” He further called for international actors to commit to the effective implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017) for the protection of cultural heritage.

Frida Larsdotter of the Swedish Police, Cultural Heritage Unit, outlined a study, which found that changes in market venues are driving an increase in the number of cultural objects at risk of illicit trafficking. During a six-month period, 1642 objects classified as at risk were registered in the Swedish art and antiquities markets.

INTERPOL and WCO reported on the global investigation, ‘Operation Athena’, which resulted in the seizure of 41,000 stolen cultural objects. “The success of this operation confirms that cooperation between customs and police can yield excellent results,” said Corrado Catesi, INTERPOL.

Strengthening capacities and raising awareness on illicit trafficking issues are crucial aspects of combating the crime. The European Union elaborated on current sensitization projects with UNESCO, including working directly with the European art market and the judiciary. 

Issues of return and restitution were addressed from 30-31 May during the 21st session of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP), which celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Cases of successful restitution of cultural heritage were presented, including the return of the stolen Vrubel masterpiece “Demon and the Angel with Tamara’s Soul” by the Russian Federation to Armenia. Turkey also shared the case of the Zeugma Mosaics, which were restituted as a result of effective cooperation with US authorities.

The importance of effective national legislation was made evident by Mexico, who recovered the 3,400 year-old Olmec El Manati, thanks to a law on state ownership of pre-Columbian artefacts, which has set a precedent in German courts.

The Committee formally considered two pending cases: the Parthenon Sculptures (Greece – UK) and the Broken Hill Skull (Zambia – UK), and recommended continuing bilateral negotiations between the parties to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome.

The Decisions adopted by the 1970 Subsidiary Committee will be available here.

The Resolutions and Decisions adopted by the ICPRCP will be available here.