Culture in conflict zones

 Paris  |  27 December 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

As the international conference on endangered heritage comes to an end in Abu Dhabi, we meet Édouard Planche. Art and war… with one of UNESCO’s experts on treaties for the protection of cultural heritage.


What is the nature of the programme set up by UNESCO against the trafficking of cultural objects?

UNESCO’s action occurs in the context of a mandate in the cultural domain, relating to the protection of heritage against illicit trafficking. This mission was formalised in a treaty dating from 1970, called the “UNESCO Convention”, which is the second great treaty after the one from 1954, “The Hague Convention” on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. The latter is a text that speaks entirely to our times, and contains, in one of its two additional protocols, provisions on the fight against trafficking and on restitution in armed-conflict situations – whereas the UNESCO Convention applies to all situations, namely in times of peace. To sum up, let’s say that the convention is structured around three major areas. Firstly, a preventative aspect foresees having States take on extremely clear legislation on protected sites, cultural property, export licences, market regulation, inventories, etc. The second major area is international cooperation. The 131 States linked by the Convention today commit to cooperating to fight against trafficking and facilitating restitution. One article stipulates that when a State sees its heritage under particular threat due to armed conflict, for example, or a natural catastrophe, it can call on other States to instigate exceptional protective measures – a situation in which we find ourselves today, given the events in Syria or Iraq, and more generally, the destruction and pillaging in the Middle East. Finally, the third pillar of our convention concerns restitution, supplemented by the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.


What specific actions do you currently carry out in the Middle East?

In the Middle East, we carry out actions through our regional offices, in Bagdad itself for Iraq, and in Beirut, Lebanon, for Syria. As far as Libya goes, our office has been moved to Tunisia; for Yemen, we operate from Doha. These are therefore units that act on the spot or near territories in conflict. Our action consists in drawing up an inventory on destruction and looting, collecting information thanks to experts… and preparing reconstruction. Unfortunately, in Palmyra, which was liberated (editorial note: by the Syrian army at the end of March 2016), but which remains surrounded by Islamists, nothing can be reconstructed yet.


When you talk about restitution, it’s a way of broaching the issue of trafficking…

In terms of restitution, we act in conjunction with the authorities in the countries in question, as well as border countries, namely Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Gulf countries when we’re talking about Syria and Iraq. But our action also reaches far beyond because antiquities now move very quickly, to all market places where such objects are likely to turn up. I’m mainly thinking about the art market in Northern and Western European countries, the Asian market, Gulf countries. In fact, wherever you find money… and collectors.


Do you manage to get an idea of the volume of this traffic, in terms of the number of pieces, as well as the value generated by this underground trade?

Regarding the so-called “legal” market, what we find from illicit imports in worldwide trade, in galleries or public sales, represents around 50 billion dollars per year. As for the illegal market, the black market, which by definition is more opaque, we have an estimate established by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body, which estimates between 3 and 6 billion dollars. In France, nothing substantial has been visible recently on the so-called “open” market. If this were the case, the transaction would be immediately denounced as any object recently excavated from ancient sites has been banned from sale in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, namely by virtue of Resolutions 22-53 and 21-99, the latter having introduced a moratorium on the trade of antiques from Syria and Iraq. Here, international regulations apply: those of UNESCO, Unidroit, and the United Nations. So much to say that in the event of doubt, abstain from trading. I can mention that for Bagdad Museum alone, today we deplore the loss of 10,000 pieces, stolen in 2003, whose whereabouts are currently unknown.


When exactly can doubt be lifted?

It’s simple: doubt can only be lifted when you have very clear details on the provenance of a piece, enabling it to be traced. Either an export licence from the country of origin, or a document which attests that the object has been circulating on the market for a long time, namely indicating that the object left Syria or Iraq before the start of the conflicts. To have this, you must make sure that Interpol’s registers on stolen objects have been consulted, as well as national police files. These are the basic precautions to be taken today. I have the recent example of a sensitive Middle Eastern piece: an Iraqi foundational nail, Mesopotamian in origin, meant to go on sale, even though it lacks a provenance! Let’s say that the art market hasn’t yet acquired the basic reflexes.


The legislative measures are in place but it seems like something, somewhere, isn’t quite right…

What’s missing, on an international level, is a massive ratification of the Unidroit convention, which counts only 37 party States, all source States. For now, the art market is reluctant to undertake this ratification, which is nonetheless crucial as it would facilitate procedures for the restitution of cultural objects. The problem is that it inverts “the burden of proof of good faith”. In other words, it is up to the person who possesses the object to prove that he or she holds it legally, that he or she has checked the provenance. According to the French Civil Code, whoever possesses an object is deemed to be its owner, whereas Unidroit says that for cultural objects, you will only be considered the owner when you have proven that the provenance is licit. We don’t wish to curb the art market, but there are certain pieces that are sensitive, particularly those related to the archaeological heritage of conflict zones. But things are starting to change. Switzerland made a move by changing its legislation in 2003, then ratifying the UNESCO convention, implemented in 2005, and adopting the UNESCO ratification in a complete form  by integrating the UNESCO convention in its national legislation along with Unidroit clauses. Germany has also recently adopted more restrictive legislation, namely in terms of the import of archaeological pieces. A new European directive also emerged in 2016, reinforcing import and export checks.


Can you tell us about the Syrian archaeological landscape?

Syria’s threatened sites, already largely damaged, include six World Heritage sites, plus a certain number of sites that are not yet listed, but which are on an indicative list tipped for listing due to their archaeological value. Today, the damage is considerable. According to an estimate, 25 % of the country’s archaeological sites have been looted, with trafficking serving to finance armed conflict.


What can be said about prevention?

Syria, like Iraq, is an archaeological field. We’ve transmitted the details of all sensitive cultural sites to armed forces, for them to be integrated into the operation plans of armed forces. This was the case in Mosul, to avoid bombing on heritage sites. It is a matter of educating the armed forces, in conjunction with the military staff – a measure that has been fairly well integrated by French, German and American forces that are gradually taking this “culture” component into account in military operation plans. Prevention also means working with local civil servants and helping them in museum-evacuation phases, working with the police and customs authorities in border zones, with many pieces already seized in Turkey, and also working on the inventories of national collections.

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