posted on Fri 24 Apr 2015 4:54 PM
Arria-formula Meeting on the Destruction, Smuggling and Theft of Cultural Heritage

On Monday afternoon (27 April), Security Council members Jordan and France have organised an Arria-formula meeting for all UN member states on the issue of combatting the destruction, smuggling and theft of cultural heritage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and INTERPOL Secretary-General Jürgen Stock will brief.

The topic of the Arria-formula meeting is broad, but the main focus of Monday’s discussion will be on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) following its attacks on the Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad, the Parthian city of Hatra, the Mosul Museum and many Shi’a and Sunni shrines.

Stock is expected to report on how INTERPOL has noted that the crisis in the Middle East has led to an increase in the illicit trafficking of cultural objects, which represents a great source of wealth for terrorist groups. He is likely to share the tools and expertise that INTERPOL has developed, such as a massive database of stolen art and artefacts, to help police as well as public and private entities identify stolen works of art. Bokova is expected to elaborate on UNESCO’s “Unite4Heritage” campaign launched from Baghdad on 28 March to build support for the protection of heritage in areas where it is threatened by extremists.

The Arria-formula meeting is a follow-up to resolution 2199 that was adopted in February with an aim to disrupt illicit funding of Al-Nusra Front and ISIS via oil exports, traffic of cultural heritage, ransom payments and external donations. Resolution 2199 condemned the destruction of religious sites and objects in Iraq and Syria and noted that these groups are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items. It imposed a new legal obligation on member states to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific and religious importance illegally removed from Syria since 15 March 2011. This legal obligation also applies to Iraq through resolution 1483, adopted in 2003, which imposed a similar ban on antiquities illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990. The Monitoring Team of the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee is due to provide an impact assessment of the measures adopted in resolution 2199 in August, and depending on this assessment the Security Council may formally consider this issue again later this year.

Resolution 2199 also called on UNESCO and INTERPOL to assist in the prevention of trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property. Member states are likely to be interested in hearing about the capabilities of these two international organisations to assist member states in implementing the cultural heritage provisions of resolution 2199. Speakers have been asked to reflect on how member states can better tackle the authenticity of previous ownership of antiquities, as well as what can be done to protect immovable cultural heritage, secure items which can be transported and prevent objects from reaching buyers when smuggled.

It seems another issue that may be discussed on Monday is accountability for those responsible for intentional attacks on cultural heritage sites whether through national or international justice mechanisms. While the Rome Statute of the ICC states that the deliberate destruction of a building dedicated to art or historic monuments may constitute a war crime, neither Iraq or Syria is a state party to the Statute. The Security Council is not likely to refer the situation in Iraq to the ICC and the May 2014 attempt to do so in the case of Syria was vetoed by China and Russia. In practice, this may limit the accountability discussion to national criminal systems.

Monday’s Arria-formula meeting will likely inform the discussions slated for the following day when UN member states will begin their consideration of a draft General Assembly resolution drafted by Germany and Iraq on saving the cultural heritage of Iraq.