Cultural property is part of the common heritage of humankind. It is so unique and important a testimony of the evolution and identity of peoples, that the importance of protecting it has been stressed in several international instruments.
Organized criminal groups are increasingly involved in trafficking in cultural property, both through legitimate markets, such as auctions and through the Internet, and in underground illicit markets. Trafficking in cultural property is also becoming an important source for the laundering of the proceeds of crime, and has been recently identified as a possible source of financing for terrorist groups.
Trafficking in cultural property involves several acts that may ultimately result in the loss, destruction, removal or theft of irreplaceable items. While criminals make significant profits from this illicit trafficking, humankind is denied access to archaeological information and to artefacts of its shared heritage. For instance, many relics and monuments from past generations remain buried underground. Where ancient artefacts are stolen and the sites in which they were hidden are destroyed through looting, archaeologists are unable to gather knowledge about the past. A substantial amount of looting happens around the world, and yet so far the efforts to combat trafficking in cultural property have not been in proportion to the gravity and extent of this criminal manifestation.
Increased recognition of the transnational criminal elements involved in the trafficking of cultural property brings to the fore the role of UNODC in increasing the international crime prevention and criminal justice response to this crime.
UNODC works to harness the potential of the United Nations Convention against Organized Crime to address serious crimes relating to trafficking in cultural property when committed by organized crime groups. Many of the provisions of the Convention are relevant to the transnational crime of trafficking in cultural property, and, in turn, many of its provisions empower States parties to rally against transnational criminals to protect their common cultural heritage. Furthermore, the adoption by the General Assembly of the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offenses has offered to the international community a new tool to review and strengthen its responses to this form of crime.