Report from Paris: How do we fight illegal trafficking of cultural property?

The international illicit trafficking of cultural heritage requires an international response - By Jasna Popović

A police officer with an illegal archaeological collection in Belgium. Image: Eurojust/Youtube

“How to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property?” was the question the UNESCO conference in partnership with the European Union tried to answer last June. Three 2022 European Heritage Youth Ambassadors had the chance to attend the conference, and share their experiences. In the second article of this series, Jasna Popović reports on how the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property should be fought.

Once having adopted the notion of protection of cultural heritage, it becomes clear that there are several areas where the action of prevention and protection are needed. Society gathers around the necessity to protect intangible cultural heritage, explores a strong bond between cultural heritage and climate change, or fights for the special status of cultural artefacts during armed conflict, to name a few. However, the problem of illicit trafficking of cultural goods implicates different factors that make it harder for the civil sector to respond adequately. That is why we especially need intergovernmental, inter-police, and, all in all, international cooperation in this field.

Diverse ways of collaboration

There are two ways of possible actions in fighting illicit trafficking that have an international component. One is cooperation within the different international organizations, where countries focus on adopting tools for encountering illicit trafficking via declarations and conventions. That is a necessary step in confronting this type of cross-border crime, but it is far from being sufficient on its own.

To prevent these ideas from remaining only on paper, a lot needs to be done. Different administrative bodies from the countries implicated in the protections via declarations and conventions need to act on it and apply these norms. Public agents like police, public prosecutors, the judicial system, and departments in the ministries with competence in culture and heritage all have to work together to reach the proposed goal of preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. The UNESCO/EU Conference “Strengthening the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property” has given us various examples of successful international cooperation in this field.

Plenty to talk about during the UNESCO conference. Image: Jasna Popovic

Still improving the legislation framework

A lot of attention during the conference was, and rightfully so, given to cooperation on the implementation of the existing legal framework and the exchange of knowledge, experiences, and good practices.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that international law has continued to work on improving the existing norms, and offering countries better support when it comes to fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. The perfect example is the Nicosia Convention (2017), drafted by the Council of Europe, which is the first international criminal convention dealing with this particular crime. It is open for signing and ratification to all countries in the world who would like to collaborate on the prevention of crime, but also on easier prosecution of the once already committed. 

The feeling is that it is a naive crime, but it is absolutely not

Corrado Catesi

Another point made, also related to international criminal law, related to the qualification of the said criminal act. The participants highlighted that perpetrators should be regarded as accomplices to war crimes and terrorism, rather than money laundering, fraud, or customs violations.

“The feeling is (that) it is a naive crime, but it is absolutely not a naive crime”, said Corrado Catesi, Coordinator of the Works of Art Unit at INTERPOL. “It is a transnational serious crime that affects all countries worldwide. And something must be done.” Fellow panellist Anya Neistat, Director of the Docket Project at the Clooney Foundation for Justice agreed: “Antiquity looting and smuggling should not be seen as a victimless crime.”

Want to know more about the underlying challenges? Read Léa Guillemant’s article here.

Good practices of cooperation

Right from the beginning, it is important to underline that the normative field has various dimensions – solely international (UNESCO), international-regional (Council of Europe), and even more restricted international-regional (EU). That is noteworthy because it not only gives a slightly different frame of action to each country but also opens a field of possible collaboration and twinning programs between them. Collaboration between Serbia, The Netherlands, and Algeria, called “Peer to peer” is a clear example of this. These countries managed to, during the pandemic and working only online, organise international and intersectoral cooperations creating a task force with representatives from all the relevant national administrative bodies. 

Another noteworthy example of international collaboration was presented by the Interpol coordinator of the Works of Art Unit. Operation Pandora is a success story of an international collaboration led by an international agency such as Interpol where, since it was launched in 2016, the operation led to 407 arrests and resulted in the recovery of 147 050 cultural goods. It currently counts 29 countries from both sides of the Atlantic.

During operation Pandora, a missing 16th-century Spanish armada cannon was recovered by police forces.

Ethical dilemmas raised

Still, it is not all as straightforward as it may appear. Especially in the field of legally conducted art sales, when different interests collide. There is a fine line between the public interest to know the details of the concrete transaction and purchase of the cultural good and the interest of the individual involved in, it to stay anonymous. Reasons like security (preventing theft, but also other crimes), and protection of privacy (financial means of the buyer or their preference in taste) are certainly to be considered.

It is clear that the authorities have to have all the documentation, but to what extent can the general public can go into those details is usually determined upon ponderation between two rights/two interests and in each case individually.

But why is this a battle worth fighting in the first place? Read Gaëlle Stephan’s article here.

Lessons learned

The conference has managed to spotlight the existing problems in fighting illicit trafficking of cultural goods but also showcased some great examples of international, interregional, intergenerational, and intersectoral collaboration.

Events like this conference not only spark the public´s interest in the subject but also remind the professionals they are not alone in their attempts to fight illicit trafficking. More experiences professional see and meet younger one, one region connects with another or one administrative body from one country with their homolog in another.

And I believe this is precisely the point and the reach these types of events can and should have. To reinforce our will to continue to work on this subject and to encourage us to do by employing different tools given by international law and collaborating on levels possible.

About the author

European Heritage Youth Ambassador Jasna Popović has graduated from Law in Belgrade and now is a Ph.D. candidate at UC3M, Madrid, Spain, researching the link between the protection of cultural heritage and tourism. She is also working in Hispania Nostra. In her free time, you can find her in a theatre or with a book.