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Increasing Awareness And Cooperation To Thwart Cultural Heritage Corruption


Professor Juliet Sorensen (Northwestern University School of Law) and Northwestern Law students Michelle Kennedy and Cassandra Myers are attending the Sixth Conference of the State Parties (CoSP) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption in St. Petersburg, Russia. For more on the opening of the Conference, see here and hereOver the next few days, FCPA Professor will be publishing various posts regarding the proceedings.  

This post is from Cassandra Myers.

In an age where governments take broad measures to reduce corruption, the illicit trade of artifacts and cultural pieces is often overlooked. Over a million archaeological relics have been stolen and sold on the black market, and corruption frequently serves as the medium for their illegal export.

Corruption invades the legitimate trading of artifacts and artwork in a variety of circumstances. As a commander of the Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Captain Francesco Provenza stated that public officials may intentionally mislabel important pieces of art as licensed to be exported or forge documentation for private parties falsely declaring that an artistic piece belongs to another country. Corruption among public servants has caused countries to lose invaluable pieces of culture that are fundamental to their history. This cultural trafficking amounts to a loss of between $3.5 and $6.5 billion each year, according to Celso Coracini, a Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer with the Corruption and Economic Crime Branch at UNODC.

To stem the tide of illegal artifacts trafficking, several state parties have established dedicated police forces to oversee the administration, investigate potential crimes, and enforce the proper regulations for the artistic relics in their countries. Italy serves as the example with their dedicated Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which is a branch of the Ministry of Culture. The country is described as the “national center of gravity for analysis and intelligence, on behalf of all the national police forces.” Members of the Carabinieri work with university academics, scientists, and archaeologists to identify priceless heritage pieces, develop archaeological maps to preserve sites, and classify pieces for a comprehensive database.

Italy’s database supplements Interpol’s own records and serves as one of the most innovative responses to curbing corruption in the trading of historical pieces. It keeps track of all cultural items stolen from their proper country and contains information accurately identifying the artifacts to combat corruption. Currently, over 45,000 objects are catalogued. The data includes entries reported by 129 member countries, and proponents are seeking to expand its reach.

Because of the inherent international character of arts smuggling, even dedicated police forces can face difficulties in recovering significant pieces. Support among countries can be difficult to coordinate. Commander Provenza asserted that “to fight these forms of crime, international cooperation has always been fundamental” in returning historical pieces to their proper origins. The lack of a coherent strategy spanning all state parties hurts the recovery effort of every country.

As a direct result, the existing database contains many informational holes—almost all the entries describe European art, though historical theft occurs all over the globe. A comprehensive database has an “important preventative aspect,” as smugglers frequently focus their efforts on uninventoried items to avoid detection. The world “need[s] databases that are accurate and comprehensive,” because the absence of one “presents a number of challenges to our law enforcement and border protection,” according to Jason Reichelt, the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer of the Corruption and Economic Crime Branch at UNODC.

Increasing international cooperation could largely minimize the black market for artifacts. This would mean more countries incorporating their artwork into the database and assisting with individual investigations. Likewise, each nation should begin training their customs authority employees in taking preventative measures against smuggling and corruption in general.

The remedies can only be implemented if member countries acknowledge the broader problem of the cultural smuggling market according to Arkan El Seblani, a manager of the Regional Project on Anti-Corruption and Integrity in Arab Countries of the United Nations Development Programme. He insisted that raising awareness was necessary and that effective solutions are “about the community of people who take [the] tools and use them.”

Preserving the world’s history means eliminating the theft of significant works of art and culture. It can only be achieved through international cooperation.

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