Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my honour to address this G20 working session on the protection of cultural heritage.
I would like to thank Italy, Presidency of the G20, and a key partner for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in fighting organized crime, including trafficking in cultural property.
Cultural heritage carries the history and identity of communities, societies, and peoples everywhere.
My country Egypt is home to some of the world’s most profound cultural riches. I very much appreciate the irreplaceable value of cultural heritage, as an embodiment of our shared humanity, and as an essential driver of sustainable development.
When cultural heritage is targeted, we are all affected, and we are all responsible.
Precious items are stolen, looted, or illegally excavated, often by organized criminal groups. They are then laundered and smuggled across borders with the aid of corrupt networks and practices, and sold in physical and virtual markets.
The proceeds may be used to fund terrorist activities, a grave concern highlighted by the UN Security Council.
In the Ministerial Declaration to be adopted, you rightly identify trafficking in cultural property as an infringement on the rights and prospects of peoples everywhere.
The UNESCO and UNIDROIT conventions have represented important steps in prohibiting the illicit sale of cultural property and requesting its return.
But trafficking in cultural property will persist for as long as the criminal networks involved can operate and profit with impunity.
To stop this threat to peace, security and development, more robust and comprehensive criminal justice responses are urgently needed.
The UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, also known as the Palermo Convention, represents a powerful basis for international cooperation to investigate and prosecute trafficking in cultural property and related offences.
The Palermo Convention, as well as its sister Convention against Corruption, enjoy nearly universal membership, but both conventions remain underutilized in cases of cultural property trafficking.
Now, as the consequences of the pandemic unfold, and conflict and instability persist, humanity’s shared cultural heritage is more vulnerable to criminals than ever. Countries must make better and more effective use of the vital tools at their disposal.
The Conference of the Parties to the Organized Crime Convention adopted a resolution in 2020 calling upon States to strengthen implementation of the Convention to protect cultural property.
A set of International Guidelines adopted by the General Assembly in 2015 provide actionable guidance to leverage the organized crime and corruption conventions to combat trafficking in cultural property.
Using the Guidelines, national legislation in countries of origin, transit, and destination can be developed, to impose appropriate criminal sanctions, and to harmonize laws across borders.
Practitioners can also be equipped with the necessary knowledge and capacities.
These steps will remove obstacles to effective legal, judicial, and law enforcement cooperation. They will also allow countries to make full use of convention provisions to prosecute trafficking in cultural property along with other related offences, most notably the financing of terrorism and the laundering of criminal proceeds.
UNODC is the guardian of the organized crime and corruption conventions and is ideally positioned to help countries unlock their potential.
Operational assistance is also key.
Our Global Container Control Programme with the World Customs Organization trained nearly 4,000 officers from customs and other law enforcement agencies in 70 countries to counter illicit supply chains, including the smuggling of antiquities.
Our Office is looking to step up our cooperation with WCO, as well as with UNESCO and INTERPOL, to further build capacities to detect and interdict trafficked cultural objects.
Cultural heritage in conflict and post-conflict countries is particularly vulnerable, and we need to work together on mechanisms to protect it.
Countries must also target the corruption that allows cultural artifacts to be smuggled and laundered.
UNODC has already partnered successfully with the G20 on anti-corruption, through the launch of the new GlobE network for law enforcement cooperation, which we will take forward at the Conference of States Parties to the Convention against Corruption in December in Egypt.
In parallel, it is essential to improve the evidence base by collecting comprehensive data on the size of the illicit market, the methods of trafficking, as well as the routes, trends, and actors involved.
Education and outreach are likewise essential, to raise awareness of the legal implications of infringing on cultural heritage, and the negative impact such crimes have on economic opportunities and sustainable development.
Greater cooperation must also be pursued with internet service providers and digital vendors, to allow for better monitoring of compliance, as the illicit market continues to expand online.
To develop such comprehensive responses, we need strong political will from all partners, and financial commitment from donors.
We rely on the support of the G20, and the coordination of our sister agencies.
Defending the world’s cultural heritage means keeping it out of the hands of traffickers, dismantling their operations and bringing them to justice.
Let us work together to make better use of the tools at our disposal, to protect our past, and with it our future.