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Since the end of the Second World War, several international conventions have been enacted to combat the theft, illicit exportation and trafficking of cultural property as well as promote the restitution of objects to their countries of origin.


Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague 1954) and Protocols

What does this convention do?

After the widespread devastation wrought by WWII, UNESCO adopted the Hague Convention of 1954 to create rules to protect cultural heritage during armed conflicts. This was the first international treaty intended to protect cultural heritage in times of war, and also the first to solidify the notion of shared cultural heritage.

How does this convention work?

The Convention was first agreed to in principle, and then was implemented in two agreements, called protocols.

The first protocol was introduced on May 14, 1954, and became effective August 7, 1956. The first protocol focuses mostly on issues concerning protection of movable cultural property and seeks to restrict movement during a conflict. Member states are expected to create a roster of cultural heritage and to make some effort to protect those items in peacetime, take steps not to endanger the sites during conflict, and not use the sites as strategic positions in military operations, thus attracting attack. Similarly, occupying states are expected to respect listed cultural heritage sites (marked by a distinctive blue-and-white shield) and to avoid causing damage when possible. Specifically, the State Parties to this Convention “undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any act of vandalism directed against, cultural property” in time of war. Moreover, a State that occupies “the whole or part of the territory” of another State Party is obliged to assist the authorities of the occupied country with the protection of its own cultural patrimony. The convention also includes a provision requiring States Parties to prosecute anyone who breaches the Convention or causes another to breach it according to the laws of that state.

The second protocol, inspired by damage done to cultural property in conflicts throughout the 1980s and 1990s, was introduced March 26, 1999 and became effective on March 9, 2004. The second protocol expands the peacetime obligations of member states to register and protect cultural heritage, expands the ability of member states and the international community to prosecute those who violate the convention, and develops more and better international institutional structures for dealing with cultural heritage protection.  Each state is required to prevent the exportation of cultural property from a territory under its occupation during an armed conflict, and to confiscate and return “cultural property imported into its territory either directly or indirectly from an occupied territory.”

When did the United States become party to this convention?

The United States Senate voted to give its advice and consent to ratification on September 25, 2008. The US deposited its instrument of ratification on March 13, 2009.

However, the United States had traditionally followed the edicts of the convention prior to its ratification. For example, the edition of the US Army’s “Civil Affairs: Arts, Monuments and Archives Guide” has included a summary of the convention and its application since before ratification.   Congress continues to pass legislation in accordance with this convention.

Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970)

What does this convention do?

The problem of the illicit trade in antiquities—and the strong incentive for pillage of archaeological sites that it creates—was the main motivation for this convention.

The goals of this convention include the regulation of international cultural heritage markets, the protection of objects and their archaeological context, and the provision of a mechanism for recognition of other countries’ import and export restrictions on cultural heritage.

How does this convention work?

This convention is mainly intended to provide guidelines for which cultural heritage ought to be protected, and establishes some basic principles for all states parties. The convention defines cultural property as “property, which on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each state as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.” (Art. 1). Among other things, this convention obliges State Parties to prohibit the importation of cultural property stolen from a museum or monument in another participating country (Art.7(b))., and allows State Parties whose archaeological or ethnological patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage to ask other State Parties for help in protecting the affected categories of materials, through measures that may include restrictions on imports and exports. (Art. 9). Furthermore, State Parties pledge to oblige antiquities dealers “to maintain a register recording the origin of each item of cultural property, names and addresses of the supplier, [and] description and price of each item sold” (Art.10(a))—a requirement that would obviously serve as a very powerful deterrent to the illicit trade. However, the convention broadly allows for each state to create its own definitions and procedures for the protection of cultural heritage if not otherwise defined.

When did the United States become party to this convention?

The United States was the first major market country to adhere to the convention, and as a significant market country for illicit cultural heritage, it has since established a specific procedure to comply with the convention. Although the US Senate gave its unanimous consent to ratification of this convention in 1972, it had no legal effect in the United States until specific legislation was enacted. By the time this legislation, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), came into effect in 1983, the US Senate could only agree to adopt two provisions of the convention, Article 7(b), which prohibits the import of illicit cultural heritage into the United States, and Article 9, which allows states whose heritage is threatened to call upon the United States for help.

The U.S. declined to implement Article 10a, on the alleged grounds that regulation of antiquities dealers is best left to state and local governments. The implementation of Article 9 has proved to be complex.  In addition to allowing the President to impose import restrictions on certain categories of cultural heritage, it also allows the United States to enter into bilateral agreements (also known as Memoranda of Understanding, MOUs) without ratification from the Senate.

See our “U.S. Response” page to learn more about how the United States enters into bilateral agreements with countries who request help.

See our “Advocacy” page to learn more about how SAFE contributes to this process.

Other Market Countries:

Britain and Japan joined the Convention in 2002, and Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in 2003. The Swiss ratification is particularly heartening news, since Switzerland has long been a major center for the trade of art and antiquities illegally exported from other countries. Moreover, in June 2003 the Swiss parliament adopted strong and comprehensive implementing legislation; it includes, for instance, full enactment of Article 10a.

An up-to-date list of parties to the Convention can be found here.

Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO 1972)

What does this convention do?

Spurred by a 1965 White House conference that called for a worldwide heritage trust to preserve the natural, scenic, and historic sites throughout the world, UNESCO convened this convention to establish a procedure for the designation and preservation of heritage sites. (This convention sought to strengthen protection for immovable cultural heritage just as UNESCO 1970 did for movable cultural heritage.)

How does this convention work?

The convention defines the types of natural and cultural sites that can be considered for addition to the World Heritage List. States have certain duties in identifying such sites and in preserving them insofar as possible. Many countries and other sources contribute to the World Heritage Fund, a trust that seeks to help countries and the world at large protect its shared cultural heritage.

When did the United States become party to this convention?

The United States was an original party to the convention, which came into force on December 17, 1975.

UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995)

What does this convention do?

This convention establishes, complementary to the 1970 Convention, common legal rules governing the restitution and return of cultural objects between those states that are party to the convention. It allows private individuals to bring claims for restitution and return of stolen cultural heritage.

How does this convention work?

The convention mandates the return of cultural heritage that was stolen or illegally exported. (Art. 3.1). The convention mandates that the final purchaser must pay for the restitution of the object unless he or she can prove that he or she acted with “due diligence.” (Art. 4.1).

However, the convention is not retroactive and places a statue of limitation on when a claim for restitution can be made. The convention also does not prevent states from making claims based on other remedies.

When did the United States become party to this convention?

The United States is not party to this convention.

Countries that currently have cultural heritage laws are highlighted in red on the map below. Hover over the country to see the number of laws. Click on the country and you will be taken to that country’s page on the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws.

Other countries and their laws, not shown on map