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No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State

28 Janvier 2015 , Rédigé par Jean-David Desforges Publié dans #Patrimoine culturel et conflits

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Monday 2 Feb 2015
Heritage Disasters Comment United Kingdom
‘No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State’
International cooperation is key to shrinking the market for looted art from the Middle East

By Robert Jenrick. Web only
Published online: 28 January 2015

Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyr © Joseph Eid

We live in a time of the most tragic and outrageous assault on our shared heritage that any of us have seen since the end of the Second World War. Ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria have become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State (IS) who are not only taking lives, but tearing at the fabric of civilisation, looting and purposefully destroying the culture and collective memory of millions. And unlike some previous assaults, IS are not concealing their destruction of mosques and churches and crusader castles, they are doing so brazenly with bulldozers and bombs, available for all to see in heart-breaking “before” and “after” satellite images and shared with pride on Twitter.

This is not a cultural crime to be revealed once the fog of war has cleared, this is a 21st-century crime being conducted purposefully, in full view and on social media.

Some of the looted or destroyed sites, from Apamea and Dura Europos to the Unesco heritage city of Aleppo and the Tomb of Jonah are well known throughout the world, but IS now controls more than 4,000 places of historic and archaeological interest—some are already lost, others like the Mosul museum hang in the balance, at the mercy of terrorists. IS want to rob future generations of any connection to the rich past of this region, denying religious and cultural ties that bind and will form part of the reconciliation to come.

But it gets worse. Through systematic looting, these works of art are funding the murderous activities of IS. Indeed, these activities are now believed to be their third largest source of revenue, after oil and robbing banks. A brave network of informants, today’s “Monuments Men”, give us shocking reports from the ground: IS employing contractors with bulldozers to harvest antiquities on an industrial scale; IS deploying militants to ensure their control sites and “supervise” digging; and licensing looting with a formal “tithe” of around 20%. The sums involved are difficult to gauge, but likely run into tens of millions of dollars of income for IS and other terrorist groups

In the United States there has been a 133% increase in imports of Syrian works of art in the past year, some notable works have been discovered by auction houses through their due diligence, there are reports works being offered privately in the Gulf at one end of the scale and appearing on eBay at the other, but overall there hasn’t been a significant uptake in works coming to market so it’s likely that vast quantities of looted materials are being stored by middlemen until “the dust has settled”. That suggests that when these works do come to market, they will do so having passed through many hands, including sophisticated, organised criminals.

Our heritage is at risk and is being used to fund terror and it is imperative that we act now. A group of members of Congress and of the British Parliament, including myself, are urging action and have found support in US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, invoking the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Monument’s Men” and the successful, multi-lateral campaign to outlaw “Blood Diamonds” with which there are obvious parallels.

So what can government do? The key to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities lies in co-operation. In the UK and the US we are asking for coordinators to be appointed who can establish forums to bring together law enforcement, museum representatives, government and representatives of the art trade.

We do not need new laws in the UK at least, where we have a robust framework tackling the sale of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities since the outbreak of recent conflicts, but we do need a step change in law enforcement. In many countries dedicated art and antiquities law enforcement is under-resourced to deal with domestic crime and certainly inadequate to tackle international criminal and terrorist activity. Cases can go uninvestigated despite evidence, cooperation with the industry can be limited and penalties imposed by the courts are often dispiritingly low. That needs to change and there are positive noises from the UK and US governments.

Diplomatic efforts need to continue, both at the UN and in engaging border countries such as Turkey. Secretary Kerry has signalled this will be a higher priority than before. Inevitably there will be calls for those countries who have yet to sign the Hague Convention (which deals with works of art from conflict areas), or to bring it into domestic law, to do so.

But above all, we need to promote and reward good market behaviour. And to the surprise of critics, there is much of it going on amongst major players in the industry. The decision of a number of auction houses to significantly increase their due diligence, principally by requiring evidence of provenance predating the conflicts of the early 21st century (using the year 2000 as an immovable date) is hugely welcome. If only objects with provenance of this kind can be sold, the market for illicit works will shrink. There is early evidence that this is changing the behaviour of buyers and sellers. If these standards could become common practice they will not only change the market, but ultimately feedback to those on the ground in Iraq, Syria and future conflict zones.

Those of us who oppose an outright ban on antiquities—believing it would be counter-productive, creating a black market in which both antiquities of licit and illicit origin were traded—or of further restrictive laws and treaties, welcome the voluntary actions of the industry and hope they quickly become common standards that protect the industry from the heavy hand of some law-makers.

In times of great turmoil it is easy to feel helpless and to turn a blind eye, but the leadership of the United Kingdom, the United States, our allies and that of the art business itself can make a difference. Our transatlantic campaign seeks to recognise and support those in the art business who take a lead, by urging co-operation, sharing of information in relationships of trust and resourcing and prioritising law enforcement—backing good market behaviour; tackling the unethical and the criminal robustly.

We are witnessing cultural barbarism at its worst—it’s ugly, inexplicable and epic in scale—and now is the time for us all to act.

Robert Jenrick is the member of the UK Parliament for Newark

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