Monday 31 January 2011

Egypt Looting: Calls for Emergency Action by US

Cultural property lawyer Rick St Hilaire has a thought-provoking post 'Thinking Ahead: An Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act'. he is concerned about the recent reports of large scale archaeological looting rapidly sweeping Egypt in the wake of political unrest
One effort might be to stop stolen and looted Egyptian cultural material from crossing the American border. [...] The Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), 19 U.S.C. 2601 et seq., implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
This draws upon Article 9 of the Convention which is refers to just such a situation. Unfortunately the US sees this as the excuse for limiting their efforts to curb the illicit flow of antiquities ONLY to such measures (which is why I say it should do the decent and honest thing and withdraw from the Convention itself if it has no intention of respecting the rest of it). But in doing so has encumbered it with a hugely laborious and overblown process of debate. Either a country's archaeological heritage is in danger, or it is not. Seems pretty simple to me. Anyway the Act itself recognises that it is (deliberately?) cumbersome and as St Hilaire points out:
Section 2603 of the CPIA permits the President to enact import restrictions on cultural materials illegally removed from a country during an emergency situation without requiring that country’s government to make a formal legal request.
Hooray for the President, eh? Congressmen in the US can openly support the import of illegally exported artefacts, but the President can decide by himself to act to stop it in certain cases without it having to go past the noses of any cultural-property-greedy Philistines. This seems like one of them.
Senator Charles Grassley introduced emergency legislation in 2003, pursuant to the CPIA, in response to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. The time is ripe to consider similar legislation in response to the reported looting currently occurring in Egypt.
St Hilaire suggests that temporary import controls should be established by enacting an Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act, which could supplement authority already existing under the federal criminal code (and some would argue the Archaeological Resources Protection Act).

But then, why do the Americans need a CCPIA which implements just Article nine? This whole "system" reeks of inconsistency and senseless duplication while leaving a huge (arguably the most important) area not covered by any enforcing legislation. Time to re-debate the 1980s US approach to "cultural property protection" and its ability to take the moral lead in the light of the current form of the antiquities market and the global situation and not that of several decades ago.

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