Building peace in the minds of men and women

UNESCO and the European Union join forces with lawyers, police and customs officers to curb illicit trafficking in cultural property

22 November 2018

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Egyptian antiques seized by French Customs
© French Customs

How can we strengthen the fight against the illicit trafficking in cultural property, which is currently experiencing unprecedented growth? The issue is the focus of a workshop for judiciary, police and customs professionals organized by UNESCO with the support of the European Union, taking place from 26 to 28 November at UNESCO Headquarters.

A glyptodon shell - a giant armadillo now extinct, ivory objects, a painting by Nicolas de Staël, a crossbow, antique firearms, coins, and sculptures. In total, nearly 41,000 cultural objects were seized between October and December 2017 by the World Customs Organization, Europol and Interpol during two operations called Athena and Pandora II, conducted across some 80 countries.

For three months, thousands of checks were carried out at airports and at the borders of the countries concerned. At the same time, auction houses, museums and private individuals were inspected, leading to more than 300 investigations and approximately 100 arrests.

The result is spectacular. It gives snapshot of the extent of trafficking in cultural property.

It also shows how essential cooperation between States, international organizations and the various services concerned at the national level (ministries of culture, customs, police services, judicial systems, etc.) is to dismantle trafficking networks, seize illegally acquired objects and return them to their original owners.

The importance of this cooperation, which is based on international treaties, is at the heart of the. Entitled Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property – a Training Workshop for European Judiciary and Law Enforcement , this three-day event brings together experts in these various fields in order to raise awareness of the practical tools and the existing international and European legal frameworks, and to exchange good practices. Topics on the agenda include cooperation between the various competent agencies, the economic and security aspects of illicit trafficking, special investigation techniques and the prosecution of this crime.

While trafficking in cultural property is not new, its scale is unprecedented, particularly in areas affected by armed conflict or natural disasters, where it can become a source of terrorist financing and fuel organized crime. This trade is all the more lucrative as the Internet and social media networks now provide traffickers with access to the global buyer's market. Among the thousands of items seized during the Athena and Pandora operations, nearly 20% were discovered on online auction websites.

Trafficking in cultural property has become a major concern for the international community. UNESCO made a pioneering start by adopting, in 1970, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property . The 1970 Convention, a recognized international foundation, has been ratified by 137 States. Since 1995, it has been supplemented by the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which has 45 States Parties.

More recently, in 2016, the United Nations Security Council adopted the Resolution 2347, which makes the protection of cultural heritage a major security issue and recognizes the international community's responsibility in this regard. For its part, the European Union is in the process of setting up a mechanism to control the import of cultural property into Europe.

In recent years, sanctions against traffickers in cultural property have increased. In 2016, during a high-profile trial, the International Criminal Court found Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi guilty of a war crime for leading the attacks that caused the looting and destruction of ten monuments in Timbuktu, Mali in 2012. At the national level, the trend is also towards more severe court judgements. In 2014 in France, for example, a wine producer was sentenced to six months suspended imprisonment and a fine of nearly €200,000 for carrying out illegal archaeological excavations and selling the Gallic and Gallo-Roman coins and other objects he had found.

The workshop proposed by UNESCO and the European Union will be structured around plenary sessions and practical training during which case studies will be presented and discussed. It will also provide an opportunity to launch a handbook for professionals entitled Combating Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property - A Practical Guide for European Judicial and Law Enforcement Authorities .