Wednesday, 13 April 2016

HR 1493: US Senate Votes to Ban Imports of Syrian Antiquities

Palmyra funerary relief
Latest news on HR 1493 (Steven Lee Myers, 'Senate Votes to Ban Imports of Syrian Art and Antiquities, New York Times April 13, 2016): The Senate voted on Wednesday to ban the import of virtually all ancient art and artifacts from Syria to discourage the looting and trafficking of illicit objects by the Islamic State and other armed groups.
The Senate voted by unanimous consent, reflecting broad bipartisan support, but it did so after months of delay and debate over the legislation, which the House of Representatives passed last year. The bill’s provisions would fulfill commitments the United States supported at the United Nations Security Council more than a year ago to try to choke off the trade of so-called blood antiquities that the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda and other groups use to help finance their military operations in Syria and Iraq.
The newspaper suggests that "the Senate’s action closed a loophole in American law",  no, it narrows a significant gap in US law, and highlights the need to deal with that gap which places more than the heritage of just Syria at risk of being exploited by greedy US dealers and collectors.  White House spokesman, Peter Boogaard, issued a statement
welcoming the Congressional action and pledging to “enhance our ability to identify and prosecute those who unlawfully acquire or sell precious historical artifacts.” The legislation should soon move to the White House for a signature. It broadly mirrors a law adopted after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that banned imports of culturally or historical significant objects from that country.
HR 1493 was opposed all along the way by the lobbyists of the international antiquities trade (the bit that operates no-questions-asked). They have lost their fight to "preserve [what they understand to be] collectors' rights", let us see what they do now.

Meanwhile there is one element of the new law which awakens my misgivings:
The legislation includes an exemption that would allow some objects to enter the United States temporarily for safekeeping in instances where they might otherwise be destroyed.
And who decides when that "might" is the case? And how "temporary' is this US temporary? We remember the Hungarian Crown which they held onto far too long and the scandal of the "help" they offered in conserving the Iraqi Jewish archive which they then decided they would keep in the US - not to mention the Auschwitz barrack I discussed here earlier. US collections and commerce have exhibited a voracious tendency to grab large amounts of everybody else's heritage (calling it theirs as "common" heritage). Why should heritage assets go to the US instead of a neighbouring country?  If the US is going to take anything out of Syria and Iraq, there are thousands of people who have lost their homes, families, places of work due to the civil war which the US is commonly believed to be co-responsible for and demonstrated to be helpless to stop (familiar story). Neighbouring countries and Europe are expected to provide a solution to the refugee problem. Instead of pots and stones, let the American do-gooders save some real living people.

Text of HR 1493 here

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