Iraq: ‘archaeological treasures are important, but human life is more important’ – planned end to death penalty

The Iraqi Parliamentary Committee on Tourism and Antiquities has drafted a new law for the protection of cultural property, which targets the looting and theft of antiquities and artefacts, and the illicit trade in cultural goods. The most significant and most heartening news is that they plan to end the death penalty for stealing, smuggling and dealing in illicit antiquities.

The death penalty for looting is ‘not right’

Committee Chairman Bakr Hama Siddiq has stated:

The country’s archaeological treasures are important, but human life is more important, so it is not right that penalties should go as high as death…. It would be sufficient to impose life imprisonment, or financial fines, which are strong deterrents against those who might be tempted to possess such treasures for smuggling or commercial trading.

Particularly if the new antiquities policy does provide varied and flexible punishments that reflect the criminals’ circumstances (rather than merely imprison all of them for life regardless), it will be a great ethical and pragmatic advance, which will defend both people’s economic rights and their cultural rights (as well as their right to life).

But the most important thing is that the committee is making a principled stand against capital punishment for cultural property crime. Cultural heritage NGOs should take the committee’s lead, find the courage and support them; and they should use Iraq’s example to encourage other countries to reform.

Cash rewards for chance finds

Apparently, they will also ‘compensate land owners when archaeological sites are discovered on their property’, and ‘give generous cash rewards to any person who finds an antiquity’ (by accident).

If “archaeology speculators” can buy land and sell its contents to the state, or if people can sell antiquities to the state without reasonable evidence of their unintentional discovery (if looters can trick the state into accepting looted antiquities), then it may legalise and underwrite artefact-mining.

However, if the state only rents/buys (expropriates) archaeological sites, and if it only compensates people for chance finds, this may really support the protection of cultural heritage in Iraq.

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