On November 14th 2020, for the first time, the International Day for the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property is commemorated worldwide. This day reminds the world that theft, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property takes place in every country, robbing people of their culture, identity and history, and that we have to work together to combat this crime. This first celebration coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention.
Although it is less well known, illicit trafficking of cultural property is the oldest form of organized cross-border trafficking. It is the third largest criminal activity in the world after arms and drug trafficking and it contributes to the financing of terrorism, organized crime and money laundering. Over the last 15 years, there has been a resurgence of illicit trafficking of cultural property, particularly in areas affected by armed conflict, becoming a major concern for countries and the international community.
The West African Sahel has a rich movable cultural heritage ranging from ancient manuscripts, to paleontological remains such as dinosaur bones, to ethnographic pieces such as masks, steles etc. These objects can be found not only in museums, but in libraries, archaeological sites and within communities.
Thanks to international cooperation of States and actors in the field, considerable efforts have been made to combat the destruction, looting and smuggling of cultural property. Various actors contribute to the protection of cultural property. Among these heroes, there are heritage professionals but also law enforcement such as customs officers and policemen who play an important role in protecting heritage. Indeed, the protection of cultural property is an undertaking generally associated with cultural heritage professionals such as archaeologists, museum curators, and art historians. However, as protection becomes a legal obligation and acts against the law are criminalized, it must involve the participation of law enforcement officials. For the past two years, UNESCO, its partners and the countries of West Africa and the Sahel have been carrying out a programme to strengthen operational networks through training programmes for key actors, research, and improvement of national legal framework.