Address of the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of CoE, MFA, Mr I. Kasoulides, at an event at the House of Commons, in London

Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Excellencies, Dear Friends,

I would like to express my appreciation to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr Crispin Blunt, MP, for organizing this event. It is an event aimed at raising awareness on the efforts to strengthen international capacities for the protection of cultural property and for the prevention of the illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

I am encouraged by the avid interest on this issue, as evident from the presence here of members of the legislature, the diplomatic community, the academia, the law-enforcement and the private sector. Indeed, thank you all for being here today.

I should also congratulate the House of Commons for the recent ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and for the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill. The United Kingdom has the capacity to be a global leader in the protection of cultural heritage and we are encouraged that it is assuming this responsibility.

While the illicit trafficking of cultural goods is not a recent phenomenon, we are unfortunately witnessing a spike in such activities, emanating particularly from conflict zones. We have seen unprecedented attacks against great monuments of global historical and cultural significance. From Nimrud to Palmyra and to Timbuktu, terrorists have systematically targeted archaeological sites, plundered cultural heritage artefacts and profited from their sale. The aim of destruction is twofold:

First, it is to fund their terrorist activities. Let’s use the example of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Since the US-led Global Coalition began attacking oil facilities under Daesh control in 2014, the terrorists have increased their involvement in antiquities trafficking to make up for the loss of oil revenues.

There is now increasing evidence that Daesh is shifting toward the institutionalization and direct control of the antiquities trade because of the large profits at stake, in the zone of 100 to 150 million USD per year. From controlling and taxing pre-existing antiquities trafficking activity inside its territory, which used to be the primary method that Daesh used to exploit cultural heritage, evidence now suggests that Daesh directly steals artefacts from museums and oversees the plunder of artefacts from the ground prior to selling them to professional traffickers.

At the same time, we should have in mind that many antiquities have already made it into the black market and therefore, this challenge will persist beyond the lifespan of Daesh.

The second aim of the perpetrators is to uproot the cultural and ethnological connection of the local populations from their land; that is, they pursue a “cultural genocide”. Such actions, however, are not directed only against the people of the country where they are perpetrated, but against our shared history and the cultural identity of humanity as a whole. As stated in the preamble of the 1954 Hague Convention, “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of mankind”.

This increased, in scale and frequency, destruction of cultural heritage, accentuated but not limited in armed conflicts, renders the need for our collective and unified response even more compelling.

Cyprus attaches particular importance to the protection of cultural heritage, having in mind our own historical experiences, and we seek to contribute effectively to the responses of the international community. This entails, of course, a multi-disciplinary approach considering that this issue transcends into many domains.

As part of its diplomatic initiatives, Cyprus pursued this issue at the Human Rights Council. In September 2016, in collaboration with a core group of partners, Cyprus presented to the Thirty-Third Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a comprehensive Resolution on “Cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage”. This resolution, which was unanimously adopted, has in essence put the issue of cultural heritage firmly in the Human Rights agenda, which was thus far a missing link in this discourse.

Cyprus has also sought to explore initiatives on reinforcing the international legal framework, with a view to curbing the destruction, looting and illicit trade of cultural artefacts. Indeed, such unprecedented and severe scale of destruction requires more effective, robust and credible legal frameworks, both domestic and international.

Our Permanent Representation to the United Nations, along with UNIDROIT (the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) and the Italian Permanent Representation have recently organized a high level seminar in New York, with the title “Promoting and Strengthening the international legal framework for the protection of cultural heritage – The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention and other relevant legal instruments and initiatives”. The seminar examined international legal responses to the destruction of cultural heritage, delving at private law, and focused on three complementary themes.

First, at exchanging views on the main differences in domestic legal systems hindering effective restitution of illicitly traded artefacts and on appropriate reforms to deal with this issue.

Secondly, it discussed the synergies between relevant international instruments and the benefits of ratifying the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally exported Cultural Objects.

Thirdly, Cyprus and Italy established an informal Task Force to promote the ratification of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention by more States. Thirty eight (38) states have ratified this convention so far and obviously if the United Kingdom becomes a state party, this would strengthen the Convention’s credibility, appeal and effectiveness.

Of course, this initiative complements other efforts undertaken in the context of the United Nations, such as Resolution 69/2 presented jointly by Germany and Iraq in 2015 entitled “Saving the Cultural Heritage of Iraq”. Also noteworthy is the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 2199 of 2015 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which prohibits any trade with terrorist organizations operating in Syria and Iraq, including the trade in items of cultural, scientific and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq and Syria.

Dear friends,

The protection of cultural heritage has been also set high in the priorities of the Cypriot Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is an active stakeholder in the global efforts to curb the illicit trafficking of cultural goods and the protection of cultural heritage is a prominent issue for the Council of Europe.

In March 2016, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided to prepare a new Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property, which will replace the Delphi Convention of 1985. The drafting committee was composed of legal experts from the 47 member states, and representatives of regional and international organisations working in the field of criminal justice and cultural property.

During its Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, Cyprus sought to provide political support and encouragement to the work of the drafting committee, highlighting the significance of its work and sense of urgency not only for the member states, but also globally. I should highlight that the Convention was designed to be an open, globally-oriented instrument to protect the common cultural heritage of humanity, therefore it will be open to accession by non-member states, as well.

The drafting of the Convention is expected to be finalised by the end of March. We look forward to the swift conclusion of the political considerations, in order to be able to adopt the text of the Convention during the Council of Europe’s Ministerial session in Nicosia in May. After that, we will work on promoting accession to this instrument and its prompt coming into force. We hope that the Opening Conference for the signature of the Convention will take place in Cyprus in the next few months. The support of this House will be extremely important to that effect, Honourable Members.

While I do not want to turn this event into a legal treatise and of course without prejudice to the ongoing deliberations at the Council of Europe, I would like to provide a brief outlook of the new Convention.

The Convention seeks to fill legal gaps and loopholes that have so far made prevention and prosecution of trafficking in cultural property difficult. The new Convention will set out exactly which acts are illegal, thus providing states with the legal tools to go after those are engaged in illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

The Convention will also articulate the responsibilities on buyers. Supply depends on demand. Buyers, who are genuinely misled, even when they have made appropriate checks, will have nothing to fear. Those, however, who knowingly purchase stolen artefacts, will be clearly guilty of crime. Tougher sanctions will also be in place for buyers and professionals, who claim ignorance, but who should have known better.

It should be highlighted that the new Convention has been drafted having in mind that the trafficking of cultural property has changed. The black market is moving away from traditional means of trading, such as flea markets, antique shops and auction houses, to trading antiquities online through social media and the Deep Web. The Convention will be up to speed with these changing law enforcement challenges, and will assist international organizations and state entities, including police services, customs, and border agencies, to be able to take the necessary actions to prevent and suppress this illicit trade in cultural property.

I mentioned “loopholes” before and indeed in Europe, traffickers take full advantage of weak and inconsistent rules in order to sell the goods to wealthy buyers. The Convention will therefore also seek to mitigate the transnational nature of these activities and the smugglers’ exploitation of legal differences between countries, which help them circumvent the law. By bringing Europe’s states up to the same standards, in terms of their domestic legislation, we hope to enable much more effective cross-border cooperation.

And this is a key tenet of this Convention, that is, to promote national and international cooperation in combating criminal offences relating to cultural property. We are talking about enhanced information sharing, linking of databases and so on.

This is a broad overview of some elements of the draft new Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property of the Council of Europe and I think it maintains a good balance between combating the illicit trafficking of cultural goods without hindering the legitimate trade of antiquities. I think it is important that this Convention is seen by stakeholders, that is Governments, legislatures, law enforcement agencies, as well as the private sector, as a robust step towards the right direction.

Dear Friends,

At this point, I would like to give the floor to Lord Renfrew of Kaimstorn, of the University of Cambridge, whose seminal work has also delved into the prevention of looting of archaeological artefacts. Indeed, Lord Renfrew needs no introductions and I would simply like to express my appreciation to Lord Renfrew for accepting our invitation to be a speaker today.

Lord Renfrew, your perspectives will be much appreciated.

Thank you very much.

Source: Press and Information Office