#CultureUnderThreat Task Force Recommends Steps to Combat 'Cultural Crimes'

On March 31, 2016, a photographer holds his picture of the Temple of Bel taken on March 14, 2014 in front of the remains of the historic temple after it was destroyed by Islamic State group jihadists in September 2015 in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Since terrorist organizations have emerged from the security vacuum left by the 2011 Arab Spring, “cultural crimes” — which include the looting, trafficking, or destruction of ancient artifacts and heritage sites — have become increasingly common in the Middle East. Examples include the bombing of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Syria, the bulldozing of the Sidi Sha’ab Mosque in Libya, and the ransacking of the Mallawi Museum in Egypt.

“Terrorist groups have recently institutionalized cultural crimes as an instrument of war,” according to a report released today by the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force. “Daesh [also known as Islamic State], the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations destroy cultural and religious sites not simply to intimidate the region’s diverse populations. They seek to erase the collective memory and very fabric of coexistence in the areas under their control.”

Following a forum on how to combat antiquities trafficking and destruction held at Asia Society in New York last September, the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force was established by Asia Society, the Antiquities Coalition, and the Middle East Institute with the goal of addressing the growing problem. The Task Force is comprised of experts with backgrounds in heritage, national security, and law enforcement. Their new report lays out the scope of the problem and what should be done by governments, NGOs, and private stakeholders to stop it.

The report notes that “cultural cleansing” serves two purposes for terror groups: It erodes shared identity, and raises cash through the illicit sale of artifacts — largely to buyers in the West. “Cultural crimes are closely linked to security threats, including transnational organized crime, money laundering, and international terrorist financing,” the report said, adding that satellite images suggest that more than 3,000 of Syria’s roughly 15,000 archaeological sites have been looted since the country’s civil war began, and that three to five million sites are at risk across the region. “Looting is as old as civilization. Yet in today’s Middle East, this destruction is taking place on an industrial scale, driven by a multi-billion dollar demand for ancient art.”

The report also says that the international community — the United States in particular — is failing in its response to the widespread looting and destruction. “The United States is one of the major sources of demand for antiquities — yet it is not doing its part. But it is not too late for action.”

Below is a summary of the task force's key recommendations:

For the [United States] federal government, the Task Force calls on:

  • President Obama to block the import of illicit antiquities through executive action, as he did for oil, and to designate a senior director at The National Security Council to drive U.S. policy in the fight against blood antiquities and terrorist financing.
  • The U.S. Congress to pass the Protect and Preserve Cultural Property Act to immediately restrict antiquities imports from Syria, and to grant the limited waiver requested by the State Department to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to assert U.S. leadership and influence in the global battle against heritage destruction.
  • The U.S. Defense Department to consider in conjunction with allies when appropriate the launch of airstrikes when extremists threaten heritage sites, to further identify “no strike lists” of cultural sites, to train Army civil affairs personnel to work with civilian authorities on cultural property protection, and to reinvigorate the modern “Monuments Men” for cultural missions.
  • U.S. law enforcement to buttress Immigration's and Custom Enforcement’s “seize and repatriate” strategy with prosecutions that dismantle criminal networks engaged in the antiquities black market, and for the U.S. Justice Department to end impunity by dedicating prosecutors with expertise in terrorist financing and heritage crime, modeled on its wildlife trafficking unit.
  • The Internal Revenue Service to eliminate tax breaks for blood antiquities by requiring proof of legal ownership and history.

For the international community, the Task Force calls on:

  • The United Nations to urge the International Criminal Court to open an investigation of cultural crimes in Iraq and Syria, to train peacekeepers to safeguard cultural resources, to include heritage reconstruction in post-conflict planning, and to support the capacity of national courts to conduct domestic prosecutions of cultural racketeering and cleansing.
  • All intergovernmental organizations to include the protection of cultural resources in their peacekeeping mandates.
  • UNESCO to ask the International Court of Justice for an opinion on the nature of war crimes related to heritage destruction in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

For the art market, the Task Force calls on:

  • Museums, dealers, and auction houses to commit to greater transparency and to make public proof of legal title and known ownership history for any antiquities.
  • Publicly funded museums to adopt disclosure policies in the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
  • An art dealers’ trade organization to establish a registry of approved antiquities dealers who are verified to abide by prescribed ethical codes and industry best practices.
  • Stolen art database services to cease certifying antiquities as not registered as stolen, as looted artifacts cannot be so verified. 

To learn more about the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force, click here.

The full report is available for download here. (PDF)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.