Earlier this week police in Europe announced the fruits of operation Pandora, an investigation into an international art trafficking network. In total, 75 people were arrested and 3,500 objects and artworks were seized. The investigation centered in Spain and Cyprus. The network allegedly moved works of art from conflict areas, and dealt in objects stolen from museums. The Europol press release boasted that over 48,000 individuals were investigated, almost 30,000 vehicles were investigated (along with 50 ships).
According to the release the aim of the investigation was to:
[d]ismantle criminal networks involved in cultural theft and exploitation, and identify potential links to other criminal activities. Moreover, there was a special focus on cultural spoliation, both underwater and on land, and the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, with a particular emphasis on conflict countries.
The operation was supported by UNESCO, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, Europol, and law enforcement officials from 18 countries. This was an extensive operation, which took a great deal of cooperation and resources. The investigators and policy makers who made this investigation successful should be commended. And yet, is this kind of large scale investigation sustainable? Will art thieves and traffickers be chastened and refrain from art crimes? Will the arrests actually produce successful prosecutions unlike so many of American investigations?
Peter Stone argues in the Art Newspaper that the UK ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention really is a big deal:
Is this really a big deal? Actually, yes it is, on all sorts of levels. Those of us in the heritage community are often told to stop complaining and to understand that in war things get damaged and destroyed. True, but from Sun Tzu in sixth-century BC China to Dwight Eisenhower in the 20th century, generals and military strategists have argued that the destruction of cultural heritage is bad military practice (not least because it frequently provides the first excuse for the next conflict).
There are at least seven different risks to heritage during conflict: lack of planning; spoils of war; collateral damage; military lack of awareness; looting; enforced neglect and specific targeting. All of them can be addressed to a greater or lesser extent, thereby reducing overall the impact. Protecting cultural heritage is not only important to specialised academic interests, heritage represents communal memory, and access to it has recently been argued to be a human right by the UN’s special rapporteur for cultural rights. It contributes to well-being and can foster post-conflict economic stability by encouraging tourism.
Finally, it is increasingly recognised as a military “force-multiplier”—protecting the heritage of your enemy may not win you many friends but it should ensure you do not make more enemies: a lesson hard-learnt from numerous recent cases where cultural heritage was ignored and not protected by occupying forces leading to unnecessary problems and casualties.
Peter Stone, Why ratifying the Hague Convention matters, The Art Newspaper (2016.11.29).
Apollo Magazine offers two brief but insightful Op-Eds on the recent heritage destruction trial at the ICC. Brian Daniels notes some of the controversy and responses to the guilty plea of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi of intentionally destroying cultural heritage in Timbuktu in 2012. He notes the difference between crimes against people and crimes against art, but then rightly points out that the perpetrators of these acts see them differently:
Those who intend to do civilians harm have two goals: to eliminate that population and to remove any material evidence of that people’s existence. Mass killing and cultural destruction are simply two different stages in the same violent process of ethnic cleansing and genocide. If we consider the intent of violence against civilians, then the division collapses between crimes against human life and crimes against culture. Present-day oppressors and terrorists do not see this distinction in their actions. Neither should we.
Helen Walasek links the criticism of the Al Mahdi trial to similar criticism which took place during the Bosnian conflict:
Human-rights organisations commenting on the Al Mahdi case have all agreed that the intentional destruction of cultural property during armed conflict is a war crime. While some wished the indictment had been widened to include other war crimes, others gave unqualified support. The conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, said Human Rights Watch, sent ‘a clear message that attacking the world’s historical treasures will be punished’. Mark Ellis, chief executive of the International Bar Association and a war crimes expert, observed: ‘Destruction of cultural heritage is not a second-rate crime. It’s part of an atrocity to erase a people.’
In an essay in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin criticizes the actions of UNESCO, the United States, and Russia in the wake of the retaking of Palmyra from the Islamic State.
For all the pageantry, the retaking of Palmyra has served as a powerful reminder of how detached from reality the international campaign to save Syria’s endangered cultural heritage has been. Chastened by the damage wrought in recent wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, Western leaders, cultural officials, UNESCO, and even the UN Security Council have for several years now devoted unprecedented attention to the threats to sites in Syria by ISIS and other extremist groups. Millions of dollars have been spent to document, with the best satellite technology available and other resources, the current condition of archaeological monuments in the areas of conflict; legal scholars have called for war crimes prosecutions against those who intentionally damage historic sites and monuments; while top officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and French President François Hollande, have long warned of the cost of Western inaction. Above all, a continuous series of initiatives have been aimed at cracking down on the international trade in looted Syrian antiquities, often described as a major revenue source for ISIS.
On Monday, on the blog Jihadology, we got some fresh insight into how ISIS makes its money. They have a short-term financial strategy that relies primarily on seizures and confiscations they classify as taxes. Relatively little comes even from oil revenues, and an even smaller amount comes from the sale of antiquities. The information comes from terrorism researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has secured leaked documents from the IS’ financial ministry for a portion of Eastern Syria.
As he pointed out, without firm numbers, estimating just how much revenue ISIS can scrape together from its territories has been a guessing game. Estimates are based on potential revenue from sales of oil and gas; antiquities; taxation; and other streams of revenue. But now we have some firmer figures.
Zelin analyzes the data and concludes based on these documents: