Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade

Heather LeeArticle, Commentary, From the field, Homepage3 Comments

crisis in syria

Heritage Crisis in Syria.

The world has been closely following the tumultuous political upheaval behind the devastated state of cultural heritage preservation in Syria. A recent New York Times article describes “a feeling of impotence” that academics and archaeologists are experiencing in the face of the sheer magnitude of the danger threatening the cultural heritage of Syria.

What will it take to stop the relentless destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage?

It is tempting to seek comparable remedies that suit other nations in the Middle East, where political unrest has also rendered cultural heritage exceptionally vulnerable.

In 2008, the United States implemented Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq without proper documentation. This protection (although less robust than what was originally proposed in H.R. 2009/3497) is in place to this day. Since 2011, there have been highly publicized efforts to enact similar regulations for Egyptian antiquities, including an attempt to pass a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose restrictions on the U.S. importation of certain categories of Egyptian archaeological artifacts.

What about Syria? Could antiquities be banned from entering the United States? Would such import restrictions reduce the economic incentive to loot (the very purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention)? How are current circumstances in Syria different from the situation in Iraq, which led to the passage of trade restrictions between 2003 and 2008?

U.S. representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) proposed the bill H.R.2009 (later modified to H.R. 3497) and initiated a momentum that led to the passage of S.1291. Could the other parties who contributed to H.R.2009 help draft and enact legislation to protect Syrian cultural heritage?

Unfortunately, both congressmen have left public office since, and it has been difficult to find out who else originally mobilized this legislative effort. Given the opposition that the bill faced from the art market community, and the eventual passage of a less restrictive bill, a similar political push for the protection of Syrian antiquities might be difficult to come by.

Given that the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria, no MoU request has been made by the Syria government to the U.S. State Department to enable import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S., which has proven an effective means to curb the incentive to loot ancient sites.

On October 2013, the EU implemented this Regulation “to facilitate the safe return to their legitimate owners of goods constituting Syrian cultural heritage which have been illegally removed from Syria… and to provide for additional restrictive measures in order to prohibit the import, export or transfer of such goods.” In the UK, I reported that the Export Control Syria Sanctions Amendment Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 (the Order) was made on July 16, 2014, laid before the Parliament on July 18, 2014, and came into force on August 8, 2014.

On the international level, Syria is a member of the UN. But despite a petition initiated by The Syria Campaign, which collected nearly 17,000 signatures and asks the UN Security Council to “ban the trade in Syrian artefacts,” no resolution toward comprehensive protection of Syrian cultural heritage has thus far been enacted. Last May, UNESCO held an international meeting to decide about the creation of an Observatory to “the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” This is not the same as the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which called on all UN member states to prohibit trade in cultural heritage objects and to adopt other means to ensure the return of said objects to Iraq, which facilitated the passing of the Iraq Cultural Property Protection Act in the U.S.

The UN cannot take action utilizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that task is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. Syrian leaders should keep in mind that the Republic of Syria remains a party to the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol. Non-state actors in Syria should also be aware that they, too, may be held accountable under the 1954 Hague Convention even though they never signed or ratified the Convention. The reason is that Hague ‘54 is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according legal expert Zoe Howe.

Key provisions of Hague ’54 include Article 4 (which obligates combatants to refrain from attacking cultural property unless required by military necessity and to prevent all theft, pillage, or vandalism of cultural property) and Article 19 (which applies the Convention to non-international armed conflicts, also known as civil wars). Sobering thoughts, to be sure.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed piece published yesterday states that Syrian locals are being encouraged to loot sites under a kind of licensing arrangement referred to as an “Islamic khums tax,” which is supposedly based on the monetary value of their finds. It is difficult to understand how this system actually works. I hope that one day more details will be revealed. The op-ed indicates that sources are withheld for security reasons.

So, what can we do?

As stated in 2011 regarding Egyptian cultural heritage protection, SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in Syria, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated.

In his recent interview with the New York Times, Samuel Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (and writer of the Conflict Antiquities) said, “There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots, and glass as an international currency.”

Here’s a thought:

Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Syrian antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day?

In fact, since looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade is a global concern affecting even “first-world” countries such as France and Finland, why not take a pause from acquiring ALL antiquities without proper ownership history post-1970?

A broad-based moratorium would alleviate the burden of proof that artifacts have indeed been freshly looted, in the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The ICOM Red Lists provide guidance as to which specific categories of objects from around the world that are most at risk, should assistance be needed in determining which objects to avoid — if only for a moment!

This would be a symbolic gesture of good will on the part of those who engage in the buying of antiquities which are being destroyed en masse, in some cases to fund the activities of the very destroyers themselves. After all, museums and collectors are the ones who create the demand. Could they be persuaded to take a step back to honor the need to protect, not destroy, the rich heritage in which these relics of our past were created?

Can we all stand together in a symbolic moment of silence to acknowledge such tragic moments as the damaging of the Citadel of Aleppo and nearby monuments by explosives, the raiding of archaeological sites throughout the country, and the looting of more than five museums?

This will send a clear message to the world that wanton destruction of cultural heritage must be condemned and stopped. Regardless of which side of the trade we are on, we can demonstrate our collective commitment to save the past for our future by not aiding and abetting the destruction of our shared heritage — with or without the presence of rules and regulations.


Featured Image: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage/.

 

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Heather Lee

Heather Lee is a former intern and current volunteer at SAFE. She is a senior at Amherst College, with a double major in History of Art and European Studies. Her main areas of interest are the prevention of looting and illegal trafficking and the development of international laws and policies regarding these issues. She hopes to bring in her past internship experiences at various art museums, to better understand how the different players of the art and archaeology world could collaborate for the protection of archaeological sites and cultural objects.

3 Comments on “Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade”

  1. Mohammed Mousa

    we are doing a magazine inside Syria in Arabic
    could we publish your article in our first edition which is coming at the beginning of October?
    please give me the answer on my email
    mo8mos@gmail,com
    this article is important to let our people know more about this problem.
    WITH MY RESPECTS

    1. Heather Lee

      Thank you for your comment and interest! We responded to your request via email. SAFE is deeply concerned with the status of cultural heritage protection in Syria, and we are always working to help in any way possible.

  2. Roger Wooster

    What I find remarkable about this article is that it hits the obvious nail right on the head. Whether people will actually stop buying and selling objects while the cultures that created them is getting decimated is clearly not the point.

    The bigger and most powerful point, for me, at least, is that the author, still a student, is appealing for the future of her past. Given what I have just read by Heather Lee on this web site, I say all those who choose to continue to engage in the destruction of the ancient past should beware: future museum directors or policy makers such as Heather Lee are not going to buy their loot.

    Good on Heather Lee for speaking loudly and clearly on behalf of her future and good on Saving Antiquities for providing this forum to inform all of us.

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