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UNESCO celebrates 50 years of combatting illicit trafficking of cultural property

PARIS, JUNE 22 – UNESCO has been combatting illicit trafficking in cultural property for 50 years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new challenges in the prevention and monitoring of trafficking during lockdown. On 26 June, the UN agency is convening a unique online debate “Combatting Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property during COVID-19 Crisis – illegal excavations and online trade” to identify with experts and stakeholders specific actions to address the added challenges brought about by the pandemic, particularly online sales of cultural objects. It follows a debate with UNESCO’s key partners on May 14th aimed at reinforcing joint actions during the COVID crisis and prepares the way to  the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property which will be celebrated on November 14th.

“At this difficult time, when surveillance and protection mechanisms as well as resources are hampered, closed museums are targeted, archaeological sites subject to an alarming increase in illegal excavations, and a significant uptick in online art markets sales, accelerating the pace of trading and driving up prices of cultural objects such as archaeological artifacts — including those of dubious provenance”, said the UN agency for culture.

The June event builds on UNESCO’s five decades of combatting illicit trafficking. In 1970, Member States mandated UNESCO to promote and enhance the prevention of theft and looting, and the return of stolen cultural property. This year, UNESCO and its partners are celebrating 50 years of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – the first instrument of international law for the protection of cultural property during peacetime.

“This 50-year anniversary is a reminder that the illicit trafficking of cultural property deprives people of the heritage that underpins their identity and supports their development,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General. “We need to step up our efforts to enforce ethical standards in art markets and support countries as they work to safeguard heritage and combat illicit trade.”

On the anniversary, partners and stakeholders join UNESCO and the now 140 States Parties to the Convention to celebrate achievements, reflect on contemporary challenges, and call for action.  It is an opportunity to build momentum to advocate for the ratification of the Convention, to strengthen the capacities of the Convention’s signatories and engage the public to fight illicit trafficking.

In 50 years of existence, UNESCO, through the Convention, has sounded the alarm on illicit trafficking, supported dozens of countries in designing national laws and preventive measures and fostered the restitution of cultural property illegally displaced from its territory. Over the five past years alone, UNESCO has organized more than 80 training and capacity development sessions, reaching out to more than 100 countries and their representatives in ministries, customs services, law enforcement, and museums, among others, providing crucial knowledge on legal regulations, partnership networks and databases, and practical tools available.

Key achievements of the on-going efforts to raise awareness of the widespread impact of trafficking are also reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which gives importance to the fight against all forms of organized crime and the protection of cultural heritage, and specifically addresses the recovery and return of stolen assets (Target 4 of Sustainable Development Goal 16).  Another successful outcome of UNESCO’s efforts to raise-awareness about the issue is reflected in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2199 prohibiting the trade in cultural goods from Iraq and Syria and 2347 condemning looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites.

From the start, UNESCO has engaged with all professionals concerned and partnered with key international institutions in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects: the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the World Customs Organization (WCO), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), as well as UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) since its creation in 1995. Today, the Convention’s implementation benefits from major donor support from the European Union.

Over the years, the elaboration of practical tools and measures have also proven effective in the fight. Through its online Database on National Cultural Heritage Laws, UNESCO made a growing body of national laws available that serves government and research purposes alike.  The Object ID Form of 1997 and the Model Export Certificate of 2005 that are today used by a majority of States were designed jointly with UNESCO’s partners to assist and support States against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.  Likewise the meetings of States Parties to the Convention, targeted training sessions around the globe for capacity building among stakeholders, as well as monitoring reports on the implementation of the Convention, all advance sharing of experiences, expertise and good practice and support the combatting of trafficking.

No country is exempt from this scourge. As criminals and global trafficking networks become ever more sophisticated, the need for better preventive measures and international cooperation cannot be overestimated.

Through November 2020, UNESCO is undertaking a series of five international online conferences on all continents that connect government officials and experts and provide a platform to discuss achievements, challenges and measures in the fight against illicit trafficking. Workshops to strengthen capacity throughout this celebratory year have been transformed into online webinars to continue UNESCO’s outreach despite the limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them are UNESCO’s recent capacity-development trainings in West Africa, carried out in cooperation with INTERPOL and WCO from 2-17 June 2020, aiming to strengthen the application of legislation through operational networks, available databases and best practices in preventing trafficking.

Raising awareness, training, increasing vigilance, cooperating across borders and sharing best practices are among the indispensable arsenal in the fight.  UNESCO, with States Parties, partners and the public, will continue to strengthen the 1970 Convention while celebrating its 50th year, to be particularly marked on 14 November 2020 with the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. (@OnuItalia)

Il giornale Italiano delle Nazioni Unite. Ha due redazioni, una a New York, l’altra a Roma.

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