On March 31, the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO and the National Museums for World Culture arranged a conference about the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. Several international experts came to Stockholm in order to speak about the illicit trade from several different angles and to share their latest research. Maria José Miñana was one of them.

Bild på Maria José Miñana
Maria José Miñana. Photographer: Niklas Sagrén

Tell us a bit about yourself!

My name is Maria José Miñana, I work for UNESCO in the programme in charge of the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property. I deal with several issues, such as capacity building, partnership development, awareness raising and supporting states in the implementation of the 1970 Convention, that I will talk about in the meeting today.

What does UNESCO do in order to stop the illicit trade?

The UNESCO 1970 Convention has been ratified by 132 states, most recently Benin and Ghana. UNESCO supports States in the implementation of this Convention through differents means, such as technical assistance, capacity building, awareness raising but also by fostering international,regional and national cooperation. As you know, illicit trafficking is something that needs to be tackled from many different angles. We need the involvement of the police, of the customs, of archeologists, of people of the museums but also of the art market, which is really important too:

– Because if collectors in the world were not buying objects that have been illicitly trafficked, there would be no illicit trafficking.

What are the main challenges?

Countering the illicit trafficking in cultural property is a challenging task for several reasons. For instance, the lack of consistent information regarding this issue. As you know, it is the black market, so it’s very difficult for us to know the actual volume of artifacts being illicitly traded. Also, sometimes the protection of cultural property is not a top priority for States.

However, the links between illicit trafficking and the financing of terrorism are now evident, and thus the importance of protecting cultural heritage for international security – and social cohesion – becomes more and more visible.

Theprotection of cultural heritage and the fight against illicit trafficking are now at the frontline of the security agenda. That also helps raising awareness and taking action within the international community.

In 2015, the UN security council adopted Resolution 2199 about fighting illicit trafficking with cultural objects. What has that meant for your work?

The resolution imposes a world wide moratorium on the trafficking of cultural objects from Syria and Iraq (Syria: 2011, Iraq: 1990). UNESCO has been putting in place the international action to implement this Resolution. A meetingwas organized in April 2015, with several partner organizations of UNESCO in this initiative. UNESCO and its network of partners came up with a roadmap to help implementing this Resolution at the international level, along with guidelines for States to actually implement it. States sent reports of actions that have been undertaken, and we are following very closely how this is being done. We are also organizing many awareness raising events for the art market to make sure they are aware of the situation.

Why is it important to protect cultural heritage? Some people would surely argue that it is more important to protect people?

Protecting heritage is crucial because we need to preserve the heritage of humanity for future generations. But it is also important to know that, for instance, with regards to what is happening in Syria and Iraq, cultural heritage is not only important per se, but also for the reconstruction of societies and for the social cohesion of these communities affected by conflict.

Maria José Miñana speaking at the international conference
Maria José Miñana speaking at the international conference. Photographer: Niklas Sagrén

Do you know anything about the people buying illicitly trafficked goods? Are they ordinary people?

There has been a very interesting development lately. Maybe 50-60 years ago, there were only collectors buying these kinds of objects. Now, with internet and online sales, everyone has access. The main problem we are facing now is that online platforms are selling objects from Iraq, from Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali with no provenance check. There are thousands of online platforms, and therefore it’s very difficult to monitor them. That’s why UNESCO also insists on the fact that States should be monitoring this closely, especially in art market countries. UNESCO is trying to do so, but we need the cooperation of the international community.

Are you having any success? What’s the response of the Member States?

There are many interesting initiatives, in Germany for instance, there is a project called ILLICID, that is coming up with actual facts at a national level on the illicit trafficking of objects from Syria and Iraq, there is very accurate data of the actual numbers, volumes and prices. We would need this kind of project in many other countries to come up with data on the actual numbers and volumes of illicitly trafficked objects on the internet at the international level.

Except for not buying these objects, is there anything the public can do to support your work?

Of course, a part from not buying them, if someone happens to come across an object from Syria or Iraq, the person needs to alert Interpol, national police forces and UNESCO so that we can take action if possible. And also promoting their own heritage so that future generations become aware of the value. This is very important. We can all take part in the protection of cultural heritage.

Cultural object
Cultural object

Read more about the campaign launched by the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO, the National Museums of World Culture, the Swedish National Heritage Board and ICOM Sweden against illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

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Senast uppdaterad 22 november 2017