Colloquium “Initiatives to strengthen international capacities for the protection of cultural property and the prevention of illicit trafficking in cultural goods – the Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property”

Strasbourg , 

As delivered

Blood antiquities: Time for Europe’s crackdown


Ladies and Gentlemen,

We meet at a time when Daesh’s black flag flies – once again – over Palmyra.

The last time the militants held the ancient city, in 2015, they blew up ruins and temples. They staged executions in the Roman Amphitheatre.

Many people will have seen pictures and videos of the so-called “Islamic State” destroying historical and religious sites. Satellite images have documented  countless illegal excavations across Syria and Iraq.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General, has called it a form of “cultural cleansing”. These are attacks on the very roots of humanity. They are intended to send a chilling message: if we can destroy your past, we can destroy your future, too.

What many people don’t realise, however, is that this is also big business.

The most valuable artifacts are frequently taken, smuggled into Europe, America and elsewhere, and sold off.

Daesh did not invent cultural looting. It has been happening for centuries. In more recent history, the IRA stole old master paintings. Afghan warlords looted the National Museum in Kabul. Al-Qaeda-affiliates pillaged ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.

But today the blood antiquities trade is believed to be booming. And serious weaknesses are being exposed in Europe’s defences against this crime.

Illicit items have been seized in Turkey, Bulgaria, the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Spain. For every object intercepted, many are believed to be lost. Once they enter into private collections, they become extremely difficult to retrieve.

Over the last fifty years, UNESCO has led the way in the fight against this illicit trade.

Its 1970 Convention on preventing the trafficking of cultural property was a watershed step. It required governments to act and established a general framework for international co-operation.

Over 100 countries have since joined the Convention. It has allowed UNESCO to help protect countless artifacts and sites across the world.  

UNIDROIT’s 1995 Convention built on this progress. Perhaps most notably it placed new and significant obligations on buyers, to take greater responsibility for their role. 

And we are here together today, because it is time to go further. 

Europe’s response to the blood antiquities trade still varies massively, from state to state.

Some countries, such as France, Italy and Switzerland, have robust systems in place. Law enforcement can spot goods being brought into the country.

Strict sanctions exist to deter smugglers and buyers. Auction houses and art dealers are expected to play their part.

Yet elsewhere we see well-established smuggling routes, boosted by weak laws and customs officials who are either corrupt or under-resourced.

Sellers don’t ask questions. Buyers can easily falsify documents. The police and the government do not sufficiently engage.

With such a mis-match of approaches, effective international co-operation becomes very difficult indeed.

The result is that wealthy Europeans, or individuals residing in Europe, are helping bank-roll the very terrorists who wish to destroy our culture. And they are robbing the world of its shared heritage at the same time. 

It cannot go on. Europe must get serious in the fight against blood antiquities. And this starts with filling the big gaps which remain in international law.

As you know, the Council of Europe, inspired by the work of UNESCO, UNIDROIT and others, will produce the first international treaty to criminalise, specifically, the different acts involved in trafficking cultural property.

Our blood antiquities convention will set out which actions are illegal, and which actors are complicit, so that states can go after the networks of individuals facilitating these crimes.

The smugglers, of course. And also the dealers, the buyers, the fixers, the dodgy officials.

Anyone who aided the sale, either knowingly or through a lack of due diligence, may be held criminally responsible.

Different states will be using common, legal definitions, meaning that police forces and courts can work more closely than ever to bring these people to justice and to prevent cultural destruction and loss. Importantly, the Convention will be open to states outside of Europe too.

As with all international treaties, success will depend on political support from governments. I am encouraged by the response so far from our member states. I would like to thank the Cypriot Chair of our Committee of Ministers for making this a priority.

I would also like to thank the drafting committee. It is not often that you find cultural heritage specialists and penal lawyers teaming up. But the negotiations are complex and we need both sets of expertise.

We are lucky to have some very esteemed speakers with us today, to help advance our thinking.

And that is what you are here for too.

Tough, new international laws are necessary. But what matters most is that they can be implemented, on the ground.

You know that reality better than anyone else. We need you to help us get this right.

With that, I want to thank you for your time and your input. I wish you all the best for the meeting and your stay.