Trafficking in Cultural Goods Threatens Security … and Our Identity

February 14, 2020

In February 2018, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and Interpol addressed a major source of concern for law enforcement agencies when they organized a global operation targeting the illicit trade of cultural goods. Code-named “Athena,” this operation ran from October to December 2017 and led to the seizure of more than 41,000-looted artifacts including coins, furniture, paintings, musical instruments, archaeological pieces and sculptures. These impressive results attest to the size of this parallel market, which continues to attract criminal organizations. As is often the case with illicit activities, its attraction can be explained by the high profitability of the traffic. "The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods,” noted Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general.

Conflicts as a fertile ground for the illicit trade of cultural goods

Highly profitable, this activity is also greatly concerning. In the same vein as illicit tobacco trade, it serves to more than just generate profit for profit’s sake. It is frequently used to fund other criminal activities, such as terrorist actions, explains Kunio Mikuriya, WCO’s secretary general: "While we lose our common history and identity, the proceeds of trafficking fuel terrorism, conflicts and other criminal activities. We will keep working in this area of enforcement …”

This is not a recent phenomenon—and it affects every single country on the planet, either as a source, transit or destination—Corrado Catesi, Interpol Works of Art Unit coordinator, details that it has been particularly dynamic during the last decade. For example, the terrorist organization ISIS has widely used the trade of looted artifacts from Syria and Iraq to develop its economic diversification strategy .

The trade of illegal archeological artifacts quickly became the second largest source of funding for the organization that controlled most of the sites. "More than a third of Iraq’s 12,000 important archeological sites [were] under ISIS’ control,” details Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist specializing in Mesopotamia at the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s anthropology department.

Key to the success of this source of financing is the use of new technologies. The internet has increased the potential of this parallel market, as confirmed by the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT), which launched an initiative in 2017 to analyze the link between terrorist financing and the illegal trafficking of looted cultural property in Iraq and Syria. The organization concluded, in part: "Terrorists and smugglers have taken advantage of some of the same technologies and methodologies used by other criminal networks. Among these are readily available encrypted online platforms, as well as the dark web, where users, including terrorists and other criminals, can mask their identities and conduct a variety of transactions. Terrorists misuse technologies for malevolent purposes.”

This doesn’t seem to be unique—on the contrary, it’s more likely representative of the organization international criminal structures in charge of the traffic in cultural goods adopt. They are mainly structured as poly-criminal groups making use of smuggling networks that operate through long-standing routes to transport the pieces. In an article published under the authority of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Institute (UNICRI), Annelies Pauwels provides further explanations: "The same routes are also used for trafficking in arms, drugs and human being.”

Fueling a global illegal network

There’s no question that the chaos generated by armed conflicts provides a particularly favorable environment for the development of illicit trafficking in cultural goods. But there are other external factors that contribute to the flourishing of the illegal market for cultural goods around the globe. As listed by the European Parliament in a recent document, those include "the major technical advances used for plundering archaeological sites and historical monuments; the development of cross-border financial transactions and e-commerce; poverty, political instability and armed conflict in third countries."

The economic and political context of a region has an impact on the preservation of its local heritage sites and illicit trafficking in cultural goods. This is particularly true in low-income countries, where the preservation of historic heritage are not most people’s primary concern, as illustrates the DG TAXUD, the organization that carries out European Commission policies on Customs and Taxation: "Subsistent digging, for example, by definition only results from economic necessity."

Nonetheless, analyzing the supply side of illicit trafficking on cultural goods is not enough to establish a clear-cut policy of combating this activity that fuels criminal organizations. Particular attention must be paid to the demand side. Indeed, investment opportunities in developed countries, mostly concentrated in Europe and North America, generate a high demand for historical objects, as the European Parliament has noted. The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF)—the reference organization regarding fine art or antiques—confirms this, with its Art Market Report 2017. It reveals that Europe is the second largest trading area for cultural goods (41.25 percent of art imports), just after the US, with 41.5 percent of global imports.

A traffic far from being in the legal blind spot

In hindsight, this situation shouldn’t be surprising. For several decades, the United States and Europe have called for the creation of a strong legal framework governing the trade of cultural goods in the name of protecting cultural heritage. Their deep commitment is exemplified in an international framework regulating this trade, which consists of three main pillars: the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its protocols, the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

As these treaties demonstrate, the international community has engaged in this battle. And the Resolution 2347 taken in 2017 by the United Nations Security Council confirmed this engagement. It formally recognizes that threats to cultural heritage are a major security issue and that the international community has a direct responsibility to protect it.

Nonetheless, the battle doesn’t take place only in the legal field—there’s important work to be done in terms of raising awareness and sensitizing public opinion to the consequences of purchasing looted historical objects. With this in mind, the European Commission has called for enhancing international and cross-border cooperation on risk management and better awareness around the implications of illicit trade in cultural goods, both within and outside of the EU, as part of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018.

Despite the fact that illicit trade in cultural goods may seem insignificant compared to the terrible damages that come out of armed conflicts, it must be put in perspective. By funding criminal organizations—or, even worse, terrorist groups—the business of looted artifacts fuels those conflicts. In the fight against this parallel illegal market of antiquities, border control agencies, in collaboration with experts of the art market, have a central role to play in stanching this destructive flow.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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