This month, U.S. attorneys in New York’s eastern district filed a civil action against craft giant Hobby Lobby that led to a $3 million fine imposed on the retailer by the Justice Department for smuggling Iraqi artifacts into America. Hobby Lobby received a formal expert’s warning as early as 2010 advising against the acquisition of any artifact likely to have originated from Iraq as “carrying considerable risk,” in violation of federal laws and the international ban adopted by the U.N. Security Council in 2003, the ban following strong advocacy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. But the company didn’t pay attention to its expert consultant’s counsel, and as a result, it has contributed to a market in stolen antiquities that puts cultural heritage and lives at risk.
Illicit trafficking is a major cause of heritage destruction. When violent extremists target monuments while cameras roll, their propaganda machine is diverting attention from the systematic pillaging and trafficking of antiquities to fund their reprehensible agendas. In Iraq and Syria, this looting has reached an industrial scale. Satellite imagery reveals the pockmarked terrain of Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, Iraq’s Nineveh and elsewhere, where thousands of holes dug into excavation sites attest to the scale of cultural devastation.
This rapacious enterprise severely damages fragile artifacts: Recall how robbers who were afraid to be caught red-handed with a massive 30 kilogram Roman statue of gold, looted in the seabed off Corsica in the ’90s, got rid of it by melting and dismantling it. Today in Iraq and Syria, looters slice statues to facilitate transport and sell humanity’s heritage like secondhand parts in the automotive trade.
However, destruction of antiquities is only one side of the story. Looting is part of a deliberate strategy of cultural cleansing, to wipe out all forms of cultural diversity and impose a sectarian vision of the world. When local populations are robbed of their identity, it accelerates social destabilization, fueling the cycle of violence over the long term.
Last month at the University of Geneva, I attended the ceremony of restitution of a beautiful three-ton Roman sarcophagus excavated 30 years ago from Turkey. I looked at its beautiful sculptures representing the story of Hercules and thought about the time it took to find its way home to its rightful owner. I remembered 2013, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to Cambodia two statues of Apsara dancers from Angkor, after years of effort and investigations. It was as if a piece of national identity had been given back to the people. How long will it be before the people of Iraq get their identity back?
This is more than a cultural issue: It is a security issue as well. When criminal organizations like ISIS loot and sell blood antiquities, they are not just erasing their victim’s history, they are financing their mass murder. Trafficking in looted objects represents one of the most important revenue streams for ISIS, along with illegal oil and gas sales, and ransoms from kidnapping.
After several years of violent extremist propaganda and destruction of heritage in the Middle East, culture is on the front lines of conflict, and this must lead us to renew our strategies to fight back. It is time to adopt stronger preventive measures and provenance checks, provide appropriate training and support specialized police and customs officers. Since these officers are not cultural experts, it is sometimes difficult for them to detect suspicious objects and prioritize culture in a long list of sensitive issues. Therefore, historians and museum curators are a vital part of the process of verification.
Building on the legal basis of the UNESCO 1970 Convention against illicit trafficking, recent decisions by the U.N. Security Council attest to a shift underway — with a new ban on cultural trade from Syria, and the deliberate destruction of heritage fully recognized as a war crime and a tactic of war.
But all that we have achieved can slip away if we fail to translate international commitments into sanctions. This is why the strengthening of UNESCO’s cooperation with institutions in the United States to block the trafficking of blood antiquities is so important. As is the implementation of international law and stronger awareness of the public on the broader implications at stake.
Hobby Lobby ignored expert advice, and instead pumped money into a black market that endangers lives and makes preserving the objects it sought to procure even more difficult.