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Fighting against the illicit trafficking of cultural property: Statutory Meetings of the 1970 Convention

Apulian red-figure fish plates, c. 320-300 BC ©Sopraintendenza Speciale per i beni archeologici di Roma

Address by Irina Bokova , 15 March 2011 : « (…) the theft, pillage and illicit trade in artefacts are the outright negation of peoples. They reduce history to the level of merchandise. They are seriously detrimental, and often irreversibly so, to the collective memory, social cohesion and mutual enrichment.” (…)

The circulation of cultural goods facilitates dialogue among cultures and plays a fundamental role in the field of international diplomacy. However, the looting of archaeological sites and illicit trafficking have become especially acute in recent years with an increased globalization of the art market, a rise of internet sales and the establishment of international networks specializing in crimes linked to cultural goods, drugs and weapons being a few of the main sources of threat for precious cultural heritage.

Clay statue restituted to Nigeria by Canada ©Canadian Conservation Institute

This situation, coupled with the alarming destruction and looting of cultural heritage in armed conflict environments such as Syria, has generated an unprecedented interest and concern from States, the international media, and the general public on the urgent need to fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Now, more than ever, it is urgent that all countries join the ranks of the 123 States already Party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, in order to help this landmark instrument become a universal one and further prevent the impoverishment of States heritage. Member States are also highly encouraged to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. However, ratification alone is not enough and States must strengthen their action to counter illicit trafficking, coordinating their efforts as much as possible, with the constant support of UNESCO and its partners.

The Extraordinary Meeting of the States Parties of the 1970 Convention took place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 1 July 2013. The main goal of the Meeting was to elect eighteen members to its newly created Subsidiary Committee, which met on 2 and 3 July 2013. The main task of this Subsidiary Committee was to consider, for the first time in the history of the Convention, the draft Operational Guidelines for the implementation of this treaty.

UNESCO, with the 1970 Convention and its programme on the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, does not seek to hinder the trade of cultural artifacts, but rather ensure, together with the international community, that this trade be based on legitimate and legal grounds validated by all stakeholders. The main objective is to ensure that the heritage of all people can be appreciated in a balanced manner, in all its richness, with the ability to play a fundamental role as an instrument of sustainable cohesion between societies. 

Training workshop on the development of inventories, Gaborone @UNESCO/Edouard Planche

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