Wanted: Monuments Lawyers

Wanted: Monuments Lawyers

Cultural heritage is destroyed in the Middle East and looted art finds its way to European buyers. Can law students think of a plan for the upcoming UNESCO conference?

On 18 May 2015, UNESCO and Leiden University will hold a conference on cultural heritage in war and conflict. The issues up for debate are twofold. One, halting the destruction of cultural heritage in Islamic State (IS) territory in the Middle East. Two, the illicit art trade originating from that region. This blog proposes that this conference be used to engage the brainpower of law students to discover what options UNESCO and the global community have available to them.
During the conference, academic staff from Leiden University will meet with external experts from customs, museums, art fairs, ministries, and UNESCO. A prominent role is reserved for Honours students associated with Leiden University, for whom the event is officially organised. They are invited to, as the Honours Academy puts it, ‘talk & do it!’.
This blog wonders if this invitation means that law students who are part of the Honours programme could be engaged to find solutions in the run-up to 18 May; coming up with ideas that could be presented rather than discussed for the first time during the conference.

Looted art

The problem of illicit art trade is anything but new, but in recent times the violence in the Middle East has lead to a surge in trade. In war and conflict, governments are unable to keep up the protection of national heritage, and people resort to looting to maintain a living. Intermediary parties profit from the dark opportunities that instability creates to get their hands on art objects that have tremendous historical and financial value.
Huge funeral sculptures from Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site where excavations were taking place when the Syrian war broke out, can sell for approximately 1 million US dollar each on the market in Europe or the US. Antiquities that are not yet catalogued – looted from archaeological sites and storage rooms – are easier to sell on the open market, which makes them popular commodities. Earrings, rings, small statues and stone heads are also popular, as they are easy to move, hide and sell. Most of it simply disappears. In the National Museum in Beirut a quantity of antiquities from Syria is stored after being seized in transit, destined for European clients it is believed.

Destruction of heritage

Then there is the problem of the destruction of tangible cultural heritage in the armed conflicts in the Middle East. In part this issue is connected with the former problem: the surfacing on the European market of artefacts stolen or removed from their original location has greatly increased since the rise of IS. But in part it is not: destroying cultural heritage is psychological warfare with Western governments and lifestyles as much as it is a corollary to particular religious beliefs. For a global citizen, it is a most dramatic thing to watch tangible cultural heritage being destroyed in the course of battle or by hammer and chisel.

A law student’s concern

The ‘Beeldenstorm’ as well as illicit trade are a law student’s concern. There are a number of laws that can be employed. The protection of cultural property in armed conflict is governed by the Hague Convention (1954) and its First Protocol. Illicit art trade is governed by an UNESCO treaty from 1970, which has resulted in amendments to the Dutch Civil Code (art. 3: 86b and 87a) and the Code of Civil Procedure (art. 1011a).
How can the law show its teeth? Can we imagine a mandated Blue Shield Army executing incursions into conflict territory to protect a site, remove objects or dismantle structures, if that is what it takes to preserve anything at all? Five of the six World Heritage Sites in Syria are already badly damaged. What survives is all the more precious. In Iraq, IS have bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrud dating back to 1300 BC, causing the head of UNESCO to speak of war crimes. The destruction of cultural heritage is not going to stop by itself.
‘Monuments Men’ from the region are doing what they can by posing as buyers of looted objects. At the conference in May we can expect to hear about the experience of customs, radiocarbon experts and others dealing with looted artefacts. How can they perform best?

Join us on 18 May 2015

We need Monuments Lawyers to assist in facing the threats to global cultural heritage both by war and conflict and by intermediaries and art buyers acting in bad faith. This blog appeals to law students on whose behalf the UNESCO conference in Leiden is organised, and invites them to join pre-congress brainstorm sessions (sign up here). A small series of meetings will enable them to enjoy a fruitful conference and be a voice to UNESCO.

Picture borrowed from Guardian article referenced in the blog: ‘Detail of an Assyrian relief from Nimrud showing horses and horsemen of the royal chariot, 725BC. Photograph: Steven Vidler/Eurasia Press/Corbis’.


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