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New Bill Could Keep Looted Syrian Antiquities Out of US

The Citadel of Aleppo, one of many sites damaged by the Syrian Civil War (Image via Wikimedia)
The Citadel of Aleppo, one of many sites damaged by the Syrian Civil War (Image courtesy of Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia)

A new bipartisan bill aims to sharpen the United States’ response to looting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries impacted by war, political instability, or natural disaster, The Art Newspaper reported. New York Democratic congressman Eliot Engel, who introduced the legislation in the house last Thursday, said the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act will “deny terrorists and criminals the ability to profit from instability by looting the world of its greatest treasures.” The bill is being co-sponsored by New Jersey Republican representative Chris Smith.

If passed, the White House will appoint a Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection to oversee such efforts. It will require that the Secretary of State, the Administrator of USAID, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General (in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security) all submit reports on their department’s efforts to protect international cultural property to the new Coordinator. While many countries have offices and agencies dedicated to protecting their own cultural heritage, such as Georgia’s Minister of Culture and Monument Protection, the establishment of an official post to safeguard foreign cultural heritage seems unprecedented.

The bill also allows for any national agency involved in the protection of cultural heritage overseas to enter into agreements with the Smithsonian Institution to use their personnel for assistance — even on military, diplomatic, and law enforcement missions — and pay their salaries. Additionally, the Secretary of State will be able to make grants to private individuals and organizations who are protecting cultural heritage where political instability or natural disasters threaten it.

In specific regard to Syria, the act creates emergency protection for Syrian cultural property, imports of which rose 145% in the United States between 2011 and 2013, according to cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire. The President will be able to apply restrictions on importing items of “archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, or religious importance unlawfully removed from Syria on or after August 18, 2011.” Newsweek recently reported that such looted goods in Syria and Iraq have been ISIS’s greatest source of funding after oil, as the terrorist group taxes looters working in the 4,500 archaeological sites within its territory.

Destruction of international cultural sites has mushroomed in recent years. In Syria, the civil war has led to the shelling of medieval cities, damage to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the theft of countless historical objects dating back more than 6,000 years — including some of the earliest forms of writing. In Iraq, ISIS destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in July 2014, and after Saddam Hussein’s fall, thieves stole 15,000 artifacts from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. In Mali, the Al-Qaeda afffiliated terrorist group Ansar Dine destroyed tombs and shrines at Timbuktu, and in Afghanistan, the Taliban blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas. That’s not even to mention cultural heritage lost in Cambodia, China, Haiti, India, and Sri Lanka.

“Protecting international cultural property is a vital part of United States cultural diplomacy, showing the respect of the United States for other cultures and the common heritage of humanity,” the bill states. It traces the country’s commitment to preserving international cultural heritage to the army’s “monuments men” of World War II. The US signed the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Even of Armed Conflict and in 2006 formed the US Committee of the Blue Shield, meant to implement the earlier agreement. “The destruction of these and other cultural properties represents an irreparable loss of humanity’s common cultural heritage and is therefore a loss for all Americans,” the bill continues.

The Art Newspaper noted that Germany — which has been described as an “El Dorado of the illegal cultural artifacts trade” — has proposed similarly strict legislation allowing only cultural goods with an official export license from their country of origin to enter its border.  It remains to be seen whether either country’s law will pass, and if they do, whether they’ll help stem the flow of illegal, looted goods.

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