UNESCO will organize an international conference in 2021 to bring together key players in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods

In the context of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention concerning the Measures to be taken to Prohibit and Prevent the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, UNESCO, the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, and the Council of Europe, organized an online conference on multilateralism, the protection of cultural heritage, and the fight against illicit trafficking (16 to 18 November 2020).

The conference was opened by the German Foreign Minister, Mr Heiko Maas, and the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms Audrey Azoulay. It included representatives of the European Commission and the Council of Europe who also introduced the first day dedicated to the challenges of protecting cultural heritage in times of crisis or climate change, risk prevention, and the importance of multilateral cooperation. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that “wherever culture is destroyed, humanity dies—and part of each of us also dies (…). We need the entire international community to act.” Cultural heritage cannot be preserved without joint and united action.

On 17 November the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention were launched by the UNESCO Director-General, Ms Audrey Azoulay, and the German Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of International Cultural Policy, Ms Michelle Müntefering. “To deliberately sell or buy a stolen work of art is to undermine our common heritage. It is to deprive humanity and peoples of the memory on which their future can be based”, recalled Ms Azoulay. “UNESCO will continue with determination, and together with its partners, to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property. It is a matter of justice and equity for all people.”

A high-level panel took place on the second day with UNESCO’s expert partners and the representative of Peru, who shared their views on the challenges in the fight against illicit trafficking. The discussion highlighted that this issue is of crucial importance to the international community. Speakers stressed the importance of civil society, the private sector and international NGOs working together with UNESCO’s partners and developing special cooperation with museums, collectors and auction houses. Ms Ilana de Wild, INTERPOL’s Director of Organized and Emerging Crime, insisted on promoting specialized units in the police force. Both Ambassador H.E. Mr Romulo of the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and General Riccardi of the Italian Carabinieri, support the aspiration to set up a virtual alert system to monitor online sales.

UNESCO has always mobilized its Member States, partners, universities, civil society and the private sector to achieve collective action. In 2021 UNESCO will organize another international conference which will bring together the art market, institutional partners, government officials, and experts in the fight against illicit trafficking in order to strengthen cooperation. Together with UNESCO, representatives of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and of the World Customs Organization (WCO) expressed the importance of finding solutions through enhanced cooperation, for example, through jointly organized training courses. This inclusive dialogue will mobilize all concerned actors.

Further discussions demonstrated how the modus operandi of traffickers in cultural property is evolving. For example, through online sales and groups operating on social media, items that haven’t even been excavated yet are offered for sale. In addition, social networks can obscure the traceability of the routes of objects stolen and sought illegally. Stricter measures concerning the search for the provenance of objects are therefore necessary.

The Conference was also devoted to understanding regional differences. Experts from 17 countries presented regional priorities in terms of the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural goods. Mr Samuel Sidibé, Director of the National Park of Mali, underlined that in Africa and particularly in the Sahel zone, the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces would be needed to contribute their efforts. Many experts along with Mr Vincent Michel, archaeologist and Professor at the University of Poitiers (France), stressed the importance of joint work between the legal sector, the police, and more generally a multidisciplinary approach. Several countries mentioned the importance of regional cooperation, while noting the usefulness of bilateral agreements.