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Image of the Libyan artefact the veiled lady

Six ways to strengthen the international system to protect cultural property from crime




Illicit trafficking, theft, and destruction of cultural property have become rampant, underscoring the urgency of collective efforts to protect, investigate, prosecute, and recover these treasures.

The retail value of trafficking in cultural property is estimated at $1.2 to $1.6 billion annually.  Criminal activities encompass a range of illicit actions, including the theft of cultural property from museums, illegal excavation and looting of archaeological sites, and fraudulent transfer of ownership.  

“It is imperative that we take necessary legal measures to address ongoing threats to cultural property, particularly in conflict zones,” Antonia De Meo, Director of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) told delegates at the International Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection (CHP) in Crisis Areas, hosted by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command in Vicenza, Italy on 29 September.

Ms. De Meo also highlighted the link between the smuggling and sale of cultural artefacts and other serious crimes, such as money laundering, terrorist financing, and trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation, which is often a hidden aspect of this complex illegal web of transactions.  

“So, beyond the destruction of priceless cultural heritage for profit, we must also be concerned about the security implications of organized criminal networks, armed groups, and terrorist groups involved in the looting, smuggling, and trafficking of cultural heritage to finance their wider criminal and terrorist enterprises,” she warned.  

As a starting point to build a more robust international system to prevent, combat, investigate, prosecute, and recover cultural property subjected to various illegal crimes, Ms. De Meo shared six recommendations from UNICRI.

1.    Establish comprehensive databases of cultural assets that use cutting-edge technologies for protection and documentation. Countries should invest in modern inventory systems, such as digital cataloguing.
2.    Use satellite imagery to monitor heritage sites and prevent theft and damage.
3.    Enact national import/export regulations that align with international standards.
4.    Research documentation of origin and provenance of works of art and antiquities to combat the increase in falsified and fraudulent certificates.
5.    Improve coordination between source, transit, and destination countries.
6.    Enhance bilateral frameworks between requesting and requested states – i.e., origin and market states – that incentivize and expedite repatriation processes.

In conclusion, Ms. De Meo said UNICRI can provide technical assistance and expertise to build these capacities and continues to facilitate cooperation and encourage the repatriation of stolen treasures.

UNICRI has over 25 years of experience assisting countries in their efforts to trace, freeze, seize, and confiscate illicitly obtained assets. Most recently, through its Asset Recovery and Illicit Financial Flows Programme, UNICRI assisted Libyan authorities in repatriating the Half-Veiled Head and other antiquities from New York to Tripoli on 31 March 2022.  The process involved multiple international actors, officials, and civil society.  The Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO) pro-actively coordinated the return of the antiquities.  

Read the speech

De Meo Vicenza