Ancient Egyptian Ruins
Vienna (Austria), 15 June 2023 – The tide may be turning on the trafficking in cultural property.
The past year has been marked by a slew of high-profile cases of trafficking in cultural heritage and returns of trafficked artefacts to countries of origin following law enforcement investigations. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in the United States, for example, announced 15 returns and repatriations between January and September 2022, involving objects and relics valued at a total of more than 78 million dollars.
Trafficking in cultural property is a lucrative business. And together with the destruction of cultural heritage, it has also been recognized as a threat to international peace and security by the UN Security Council, a well as an impediment to the enjoyment of cultural heritage as a human right. It deprives people of their history and culture and weakens social cohesion in the long term.
“Cultural heritage plays a central role in shaping one’s identity. It reflects who we are, where we have been, and where we hope to be,” pointed out Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “There have also been cases of armed non-state actors and terrorist groups engaging in cultural property trafficking to fund their activities, prolonging conflicts and fueling other forms of organized crime, while damaging priceless markers of history,” she added.
Ms. Waly was speaking at a side-event of the 32nd Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) in May 2023, where UNODC, UNESCO and INTERPOL launched together the CATCH –the Co-Action Against Trafficking in Cultural Heritage- Initiative. Responding to multiple calls for action, the three agencies are joining forces to strengthen the fight against trafficking in cultural heritage.
Various important international legal instruments, including the UN Convention against Transnational Crime and the International Guidelines on Criminal Justice Responses to Trafficking in Cultural Property are guiding these efforts. In her remarks at the event, Ms. Waly noted that “with these tools at our disposal, we must bolster our efforts by creating and reinforcing partnerships, and working together to strengthen detection, investigation, and prosecution of the criminal groups behind these nefarious activities.”
Some countries with a huge cultural heritage to protect have developed a strong expertise and leadership in this area, such as Italy, France, Greece and Egypt. Italy’s Carabinieri, for instance, has recovered thousands of objects and built legal cases that have resulted in high-profile repatriations of cultural property and helped others to recover their stolen property.
However, bilateral actions alone cannot address a transnational problem. “This complex, inherently transnational crime needs to be approached at the regional and global level,” shared H.E. Ms. Delphine Hournau-Pouëzat, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations in Vienna.
“By safeguarding our cultural heritage, together we make it possible for future generations to celebrate and learn about their past,” shared Mr. Stephan Kavanagh, Executive Director for Police Services, INTERPOL, at the event.
“This new partnership will allow us to enlarge the scope of our action, by raising awareness, strengthening law enforcement capacities and enhancing international cooperation to combat trafficking in cultural property in the Mediterranean”, explained Ms. Krista Pikkat, Secretary of the 1970 Convention and Director of the Culture and Emergencies Entity of UNESCO’s Culture Sector.
“The CATCH initiative is very timely. Trafficking of cultural property is a complex crime, that takes place through the interaction of a variety of actors. UNODC, UNESCO and INTERPOL have a track record of addressing this phenomenon, and with this project they are pooling their resources to fight it together”, highlighted H.E. Mr. Stephan Klement, Permanent Observer of the EU to the UN in Vienna, moderating the panel.
CATCH was launched for fundraising purposes and aims to be piloted in the Mediterranean, a region where this crime is particularly prevalent.