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Act for Heritage! Conference promoting the Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property, within governments and civil society

Nicosia, Cyprus , 

As pronounced by Matjaz Gruden,

Director of Democratic Participation

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

 

It is a pleasure to be here in Nicosia.

This city is the birthplace of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property.

Opened for signature in 2017, it is one of our newest conventions, addressing an age-old problem, and today provides us with the perfect opportunity to take stock of the progress that we have made, and what remains to be done.

In discussing this issue, it is important to bear in mind the scale of the problem.

Offences against cultural property are widespread and take many forms:

The theft of art; the illicit trade in cultural material; the unlawful excavation of tombs and mausoleums; the removal of archaeological artefacts; the illegal export, import and acquisition of cultural goods in the arts market; the falsification of documents; and the destruction or irreparable damage of monuments, some of which are on the World Heritage List.

All of these crimes are well-known to us, and form part of an illicit trade that is interwoven with money laundering, terrorist funding, and organised crime.

This must stop.

Cultural heritage belongs to the groups, communities and societies from which it derives.

People find their identity in their art and history, and they have a right to enjoy their own heritage.

The theft, degradation and destruction of their cultural property is therefore not only a financial loss – important though that is.

It is also an assault on their collective memory and their human rights, and it leaves a gaping wound.

In recent years – and in countries not far from here – we have witnessed a range of high-profile, and heart-breaking examples of these cultural crimes, which often thrive in times of conflict and war.

It was this that led to the “Namur Call” of 2015 by European Ministers of Culture, speaking out about the need for action to protect cultural property.

The Council of Europe understood the moral urgency and the Nicosia Convention is our response.

This treaty breaks new ground.

It is primarily a criminal law instrument.

It contributes to a coherent international legal regime by which to harmonise domestic legislation on criminal offences relating to cultural property.

And it sets welcome minimum standards of protection that States Parties must meet, creating an effective punitive dimension at the international level.

Yes, there are good examples of joint action between authorities.

Earlier this year, Operation Pandora III struck against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods online.

Coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard and supported by Europol, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation, represented here today, it resulted in the seizure of 18,000 items and the arrest of 59 people.

This was undoubtedly a positive outcome, but its success in fact signposts the need to go further.

Because the hard reality is that too few of these offences are reported, revealed and prosecuted.

And awareness-raising and the standards set out in the Nicosia Convention are therefore critical for bringing an end to impunity for these crimes.

The treaty is of course still young.

It has twelve signatures and two ratifications, one of which is by Mexico.

In itself, this is significant.

It shows an understanding by the Mexican authorities that, while the Nicosia Convention was made in Europe, it addresses a problem that crosses borders around the world and, as such,

we are clear that this treaty is open to governments from every continent.

But the time to act is now.

We are ambitious to move forward, attract more signatures, and achieve more ratifications, so that better, more effective, coordinated action can take place –

And more crimes can be stopped.

How then can we accelerate the political momentum for progress?

Well, we need awareness-raising, and education, and action from our law-enforcement bodies.

And I am therefore very pleased to see all of these issues included in the programme for this conference.

But we also need the active engagement and participation of all the actors concerned if we are to maximise the good that we can do.

So, I congratulate the Republic of Cyprus’ Commissioner for Volunteerism and

Non-Governmental Organisations for his inclusive approach to organising this event.

From governments, we have here heritage specialists, including those from public cultural institutions, as well as crime prevention and law enforcement specialists.

From civil society, we are joined by interested individuals, researchers and heritage-related professional associations.

And from the inter-governmental sector, we are fortunate to have with us a range of international organisations and specialised bodies, including UNESCO and UNIDROIT, that contributed important standards prior to the Nicosia Convention, and then co-operated with the Council of Europe to draft it.

I am also pleased that we are joined on this occasion by a range of professionals, including those from galleries, the tourist industry, and arts businesses.

Each and every one of you is welcome.

After all, we all have a role to play in protecting cultural heritage and our presence here today is a demonstration of the common moral responsibility that falls to us.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Council of Europe has long understood the importance of protecting common cultural heritage.

That sentiment underpinned the 1954 European Cultural Convention and a series of

standard-setting conventions that followed.

But the Nicosia Convention is different.

It follows the shift first signalled by the Faro Convention in 2005.

This is a movement away from simply protecting heritage and towards actively recognising both its value to society at large and the rights of citizens and local authorities to have a say in the management of their cultural property.

So, I want to thank the Cypriot authorities for their role in that treaty process, and for organising the follow-up Act for Heritage conference.

We have before us a framework for greater coordination and co-operation.

So, let this Conference be an opportunity to build bridges and to move forward.

 

Thank you.