Tomb raiders and the profits of doom

Lask week, the World Today published an article on the conflict antiquities trade by me and Sasan Aghlani (@Aghlani), a Research Assistant in International Security at Chatham House and PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He’s written elsewhere on the role of violence against religious property in conflict (the power of sacred geography in Iraq). Apart from giving it the superlative title, the World Today has kindly given us permission to share the fully-sourced text here. (Sources were provided for fact-checking during editing, but not published in the magazine.)

Tomb raiders and the profits of doom

Tomb-robbing is sometimes described as the secondoldest profession.  It ebbs and flows as local and international conditions change, and it flourishes in poor countries. Carefully managed aid, development, education and policing can reduce it but, according to the experts, it has been growing steadily for the past hundred years.

Though the situation varies between countries and even within territories, from Cyprus to Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, there is significant evidence that politically-motivated armed groups are engaged in the illicit trade in antiquities.  The ancient treasures are commodities from which armies and paramilitaries make money by theft, smuggling or sale, or ‘protection’ – often called taxation – of those activities. It is cultural racketeering. Yet while the norm against trading in conflict diamonds has been institutionalized with some success, there is no such mechanism to suppress the trade in conflict antiquities.

Media interest in this trade has focused recently on Syria. In December John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said the looting of Apamea and Dura-­Europos and other ancient sites in Syria was ‘a tragedy for all civilized people.’   He identified the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) as the worst offenders. But such statements belie a lack of reliable information on the trade.  Different investigations have found evidence of IS’s taxation of antiquities transactions but nothing more, or conversely of IS looting and selling antiquities. Millions of dollars’ worth of treasures from Syria – most if not all from regime territory – have been seized in Lebanon alone, so many millions’ worth must be leaving the country.

Reports last year that IS had made up to $36m from antiquities trafficking were not backed up by evidence. And there were no details such as where the material was from, through which territory it was smuggled, and whether the income was from industrial extraction for a mass market or boutique supply to elite clientele. Widely publicized claims that ‘looting’ was IS’s second-largest revenue stream, after oil sales, were inferences from data on Al Qaeda in Iraq, IS’s predecessor, which actually comprised the income from all spoils of war (ghanima), not only looted antiquities. Reports that the trafficking of antiquities was IS’s equal-largest or greatest revenue stream do not appear to have had evidence to back them up.

Estimates that IS makes more than $200 million a year by selling antiquities appear to be guesswork. A police officer’s report that rebels and jihadists had looted 1,000 sites in Syria was silent on how many sites regime forces had looted. And this figure is difficult to reconcile with an academic satellite survey of archaeologically rich areas across Syria, which found 290 sites had been harmed by looting, damage or violence.

International obligations are already in place for buyers, sellers and states that implicitly address the trade in conflict antiquities – most prominently, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954); the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970); the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972); and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995). Having established that antiquities are ‘irreplaceable’ assets, these mechanisms tend to further the notion of the trade as a priority only for those directly responsible for cultural heritage and preservation.

The conventions are littered with articles dependent on authorities being resilient enough to monitor vulnerable sites and regulate their export market. Often during conflict, or in disputed territories or areas of state failure, these conditions are absent. As the underwater archaeologist Matthew Harpster has noted, ‘many of the procedures assume a minimal degree of cooperation between the [warring] parties.’

Furthermore, societies can only recover illicitly exported antiquities when they can prove that the antiquities came from their territory after legislation had been passed. This is exceptionally difficult for archaeological materials from past societies whose historic boundaries do not align with modern borders, and which are undocumented when illicitly extracted. While these legal frameworks further the norm of preserving cultural heritage, they are not robust enough to prevent the illicit trade funding terrorist organisations, paramilitaries and warlords during conflicts.

So what more can be done? In an op-ed in the Washington Post, the former head of operations at the World Bank’s stolen asset recovery initiative, Mark Vlasic, called for lessons to be learned from the successes of the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme established in 2003 to prevent [blood diamonds/]conflict diamonds from entering the mainstream diamond market. The success of this process is informative: it was the result of a global campaign directed at governments, dealers and buyers; cemented the link between mining and horrific violence across the world; and gave birth to a norm against the trade in diamonds mined in conflict zones. Governments are now required to certify the origin of all diamonds leaving their country, though those sceptical of the Kimberley Process have argued that governments are still largely unaccountable.

A major difficulty in replicating the successes of the Kimberley Process lies in the opacity of the antiquities trade itself. Diamonds are openly traded, and ordinary people buy them. By contrast, the antiquities trade is a comparatively elite field that relatively few people are exposed to. The most obvious buyers, such as museums, tend to avoid purchasing articles that can be easily linked to paramilitary plunder.  Most law enforcement agencies simply do not have the resources to identify genuine artefacts from replicas, or establish their places of origin.

Auctioneers, dealers and collectors must act far more transparently. Much of the work being done to monitor the trade in illicit antiquities depends on open-source analysis, through which investigators are estimating the size of the trade, identifying gaps in legislation and regulation, and tracing the structure and functioning of illicit operations from source to market. Archaeologists and criminologists are widening the net for intelligence gathering on groups such as IS, detailing their financial structures, smuggling routes and supply chains. They can facilitate the mapping and management of regional conflict economies. Yet researchers repeatedly come up against opacity among some of the world’s largest auctioneers and traders who want to avoid negative publicity.

Finally it is important to broaden the scope from the mere preservation of cultural heritage.  An article specifically targeting the trade in conflict antiquities could be introduced to existing international legislation designed to tackle organized crime. Conflict creates the same opportunities for criminals, terrorists and paramilitaries to smuggle antiquities as it does any other illicit enterprise, such as people or drug trafficking. As law enforcement agencies and the military are over-stretched and struggle to control territory, borders become more porous, and networks of individuals and groups seeking to profit from their role as gate-keepers thrive. Those concerned with international security should be just as eager to tackle the trade in conflict antiquities as those wanting to protect cultural heritage.


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