The Council of Europe has a crucial role to play in protecting cultural heritage and the Convention on Offences Related to Cultural Property, which is currently being drafted, will be an important legal tool towards this end, according to foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides who chairs the CoE Committee of Ministers.
Speaking at a conference in Strasbourg co-organised with the Council’s Secretary General, Thorbjorn Jagland, Kasoulides said “our aim is to explore innovative approaches, to seek synergies and to foster capacity-building to effectively protect cultural property from destruction and to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts”.
He said that over the past few years there has been a surge on attacks against great monuments of global historical and cultural significance. Notably, in Iraq and Syria, from Nimrud to Palmyra, the terrorists of Daesh have systematically plundered the region’s cultural heritage, deliberately destroying important archaeological sites and profiting from the sale of valuable excavated artefacts.
The aim of destruction, he said, is twofold: “to raise funds for their terrorist action; indeed the illicit trafficking of artefacts is a major source of terrorist financing. At the same time, the perpetrators seek through these attacks to uproot the cultural and ethnological connection of the local populations from their land; that is, they pursue a ‘cultural genocide’. Such actions, however, are not directed only against the people of the country where they are perpetrated, but against our shared history and the cultural identity of humanity as a whole”.
Noting the need for collective and unified response, Kasoulides recalled that culture has been one of the primary subjects of policy of the Council of Europe since its inception.
Cyprus, he said, attaches particular importance to the protection of cultural heritage, having in mind our own historical experiences, and we seek to contribute effectively to the responses of the international community.
Along with Unidroit, the independent agency tasked with modernising, harmonising and co-ordinating private and in particular commercial law, Cyprus is organising a seminar in New York on strengthening the international legal framework particularly on combating and preventing the trafficking of stolen and illegally exported artefacts and overcoming hindrances to their effective restitution. The aim is to build on existing instruments such as Security Council Resolutions, the Unesco Convention of 1970 and the Unidroit Convention of 1995.
He further said that the CoE committee decided in March 2016 to prepare a new Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property. This new convention will become the only international treaty focusing on criminal measures and sanctions on illicit activities – such as the destruction and trafficking of cultural goods, while also providing a complete set of measures to foster international co-operation between states to better prevent and combat the illicit trafficking and the deliberate destruction of cultural property.
This new legal instrument, which will be open for accession to non-member states, he said, will be a most effective tool in efforts to improve and unify domestic legislation and international legal co-operation, to provide an effective framework ending impunity and improving the means of protection.
Cyprus, he remarked, has declared its wish to have the convention open for signature during the ministerial conference in Nicosia in May.
In his opening remarks, Jagland said that the world is “being robbed of shared heritage” and added that political support is needed to fill the gaps in international law that allow trafficking in cultural property.
He described the plunder of artefacts by the Islamic State as a “form of cultural cleansing” and also big business.
“Daesh did not invent cultural looting. It has been happening for centuries. In more recent history, the IRA stole old master paintings. Afghan warlords looted the national museum in Kabul. Al-Qaeda-affiliates pillaged ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu,” Jagland said.
“But today the blood antiquities trade is believed to be booming. And serious weaknesses are being exposed in Europe’s defences against this crime. Illicit items have been seized in Turkey, Bulgaria, the UK, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. For every object intercepted, many are believed to be lost. Once they enter into private collections, they become extremely difficult to retrieve.”
Irina Bokova, Director General of Unesco, in her remarks, confirmed the world moratorium on trading of cultural goods from Iraq and Syriy and also hailed the planned new CoE treaty.