Illicit traffic of cultural goods constitutes a transnational phenomenon that can only be fought by developing strong international cooperation, which unfortunately turns out to be an arduous task for Euro Mediterranean countries. The European Union is offering support to its partners.

Together, towards restitution of cultural goods

Illicit traffic of cultural goods constitutes a transnational phenomenon that can only be fought by developing strong international cooperation, which unfortunately turns out to be an arduous task for Euro Mediterranean countries. The European Union is offering support to its partners.

Bruno Barmaki – Beirut, Eurojar

Within the framework of the Euromed Heritage program, and with the support of UNESCO (under the patronage of the Lebanese General Directorate of Antiquities), the European Union has held, on November 2009, a seminar on reinforcing legal and institutional framework for the prevention of cultural properties illicit traffic. In addition to experts from international organizations, representatives of 8 Mediterranean countries have taken part in this seminar: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But, beyond this encounter, what is the situation on the ground?

In fact, with insufficient financial and technical resources, these eight countries are endeavoring, against all odds, to protect their national wealth from vandalism, pillage and illicit traffic: a real struggle, mainly due to legal and institutional obstacles.

In reality, the phenomenon of illicit traffic is so much important that it seems impossible to calculate. The main reason is that national and international authorities are often unaware of traffic perpetrators identity, not to mention the lack of coordination with international bodies and the absence of an exhaustive inventory on cultural properties in most of those countries. Unfortunately, illicit traffic of cultural goods is not a priority issue for governments. Yet, it should be considered like this one day: above all, the country’s identity is at stake here. Furthermore, cultural properties constitute a vital resource for cultural tourism. It seems regrettable that until now, archeological wealth issue is not reasonably examined by scientists as it should be.

Inventories: a starting point
How could countries succeed in preserving their cultural heritage? The first step is to create an inventory, experts say unanimously, as well as the Euromed Heritage program (who has already organized a workshop on this issue in Paris, in December 2008). Without an inventory of cultural goods, it is impossible to prove property in case of thievery. This is why this action should be urgently undertaken by all concerned countries. Nevertheless, if the principle of inventory seems simple – taking photos, describing, giving measurements and numbering the cultural property –, its execution is far from being that easy, especially when human and financial resources are seriously lacking. In the West Bank, “I am the only person in charge of this task” with some rudimentary tools, and this mission was not launched until recently, says Khader Abdelfattah Khanfar, director of inventory at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquity. On the opposite side, Egypt is “a country that possesses inventory lists that date from the XIX century, with a law protecting archeological wealth”, explains Ramadan Badry Hussein, national documentation project director.

The fact remains that establishing an inventory is not sufficient. Cultural goods still have to be protected. It is not only a matter of museums surveillance, stocks control, forbidding access to excavation sites or hunting clandestine excavation perpetrators. Yet, these objectives are far from being easily reachable, even for small surfaces such as Lebanon, then what about huge countries like Algeria? In order to facilitate control measures, cooperation between different state bodies proved useful. Thus, administrative services related to General Directorate of Antiquities and to Customs and Police services are called to coordinate their activities. Speed and reaction skills to thievery are also essential.

Cross-border crime
What should be done in case of a crime? All is not lost, if concerned parties manage to have high-speed cooperation. In fact, once it is proved that illicit traffic crime is of cross border nature – accentuated with an illicit traffic on Internet -, immediate Interpol response would certainly facilitate the restitution of a stolen good. Except that local police services do not always solicit the “World police” assistance.

This lack of reactivity is seriously harmful, especially that Interpol is equipped with an electronic platform related to each local office, a network that allows to transfer information in a few minutes throughout the world”, explains Karl-Heinz Kind, head of team at the drug and criminal organizations unit, adding that “this database contains information about more than 34,000 cultural goods stolen in 2009, against 17,000 in 2000.” With detailed description and photos of each object, it helps identifying the cultural goods, notably in auctions and private art galleries or even in museums. Thanks to this database system, “it happens that we succeed to catch the stolen objects a few minutes before the auction takes place… sometimes 30 years after they were stolen”, adds Mr. Kind. In order to facilitate the work process, Interpol has extended its cooperation to include UNESCO and ICOM, as well as the National council for museums.

Customs officers should also be mobilized, “as borders surveillance constitutes a golden opportunity for the restitution of stolen pieces”, says Massimiliano Caruso, technical attaché at the World Customs Organization (OMD). The organization is making available several tools and resources to help limit the traffic of cultural properties, notably a database that is expected to be functional starting 2010, as well as an optional but unified export certificate, according to Mr. Caruso.

Also, “UNESCO has created a database of national laws on cultural heritage, import-export procedures, certificate models, contacts lists and Internet websites available for interested persons. To date, this list included links to 2233 full-text of laws related to 176 states, among which 100 from 20 Arab countries”, explains Edouard Planche, at the UNESCO Section of Museums and Cultural Objects.

Bilateral conventions
This cooperation would be even more efficient if it is accompanied by cooperation and bilateral conventions for the restitution of stolen properties between bordering countries, on the basis of reciprocity. One could imagine such agreements being concluded between Maghreb countries, or for instance between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Can we think of a Euro-Mediterranean convention that helps link different countries of the Mediterranean? Jean-Louis Luxe, Euromed Heritage program expert, says he prefers an international cooperation for fighting against illicit traffic of cultural goods. The European Union is adopting at this level a much more personalized approach that consists in soliciting the involvement of officials from each country in reinforcing their legal and institutional framework to face this curse. In case of need, EU could offer expertise mission.

Thus, in view of the cross-border nature of these crimes, international conventions remain the most efficient tool. Even if we think that their elaboration is an easy task, seeing that their condemnation is unanimous, we notice that reality is much more complicated, since conventions should respond to “two conflicting logics regarding cultural properties: the market logic for importing countries, and the ethic logic for exporting countries”, explains Ridha Fraoua, seminar reporter, adding that “it was necessary to find a modus Vivendi between all the submitted proposals”. If La Haye (1954) and UNESCO (1970) conventions have received a great number of adherents, the UNIDROIT convention (1995), which has the advantage to be applicable directly in court without any need for national legislations, includes only thirty adherents, among which Algeria, the unique Southern Mediterranean country. If other “sources” seem reluctant, it is because they consider that this convention does not bring necessary legal warranties for the restitution of stolen cultural goods. Whatever were the apprehensions of these countries, they are called, according to Mr. Fraoua, to stop being “mere consumers of international conventions.”

It still remains that, as in all fields, awareness campaigns are vital for illicit traffic prevention. This is why the EU, UNESCO, Interpol and ICOM hold a large outfit of media tools. Jennifer Thevenot from ICOM explains that the council is for example publishing a series of “100 lost objects” and a “Red List” (per country) of stolen archeological pieces. The idea behind that is to adopt a “qualitative approach” to reach tourists and import markets specifically. Mediterranean partner countries actions remain limited in this field.

The Euromed Heritage IV program has foreseen five legal workshops for the period 2008-2011, on the following themes:
-Inventories, Paris, France, December 2008.
-Reinforcing legal and institutional framework: “preventing and fighting illicit traffic of cultural property”, Beirut, December 2009.
-Reinforcing legal and institutional framework: “planning regulations and urban rehabilitation”, Rabat, December 2009
-Economic regeneration: economics of heritage assets and funding opportunities, 2010.
-Training and education in heritage management, 2011.

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