Friday, 6 February 2015

Tomb raiders and the profits of doom

Sasan Aghlani, Sam Hardy ('Tomb raiders and the profits of doom' , The World Today, Volume 71, Number 1) in a short but incisive text discuss conflict antiquities in their wider context.
There is significant evidence that politically motivated armed groups are engaged in the illicit trade in antiquities. The ancient treasures are commodities from which armies and paramilitaries make money by theft, smuggling or sale, or ‘protection’ – often called taxation – of those activities. It is cultural racketeering. Yet while the norm against trading in conflict diamonds has been institutionalized with some success, there is no such mechanism to suppress the trade in conflict antiquities. 
In recent months, media interest in this trade has focused recently on Syria and the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) are depicted as the worst offenders.
But such statements belie a lack of reliable information on the trade. Different investigations have found evidence of IS’s taxation of antiquities transactions but nothing more, or conversely of IS looting and selling antiquities. Millions of dollars’ worth of treasures from Syria – most if not all from regime territory – have been seized in Lebanon alone, so many millions’ worth must be leaving the country. Reports last year that IS had made up to $36 million from antiquities trafficking were not backed up by evidence. And there were no details about where the material was from, through which territory it was smuggled, and whether the income was from industrial extraction for a mass market or boutique supply to elite clientele. 
Yet there are international obligations already in place for buyers, sellers and states that implicitly address the trade in conflict antiquities (listed in their article)
The conventions are littered with articles dependent on authorities being resilient enough to monitor vulnerable sites and regulate their export market. Often during wars, or in disputed territories or areas of state failure, these conditions are absent. As the underwater archaeologist Matthew Harpster has noted: ‘Many of the procedures assume a minimal degree of cooperation between the [warring] parties.’ Furthermore, societies can only recover illicitly exported antiquities when they can prove that they came from their territory after legislation had been passed. This is exceptionally difficult for archaeological materials from past societies whose historic boundaries do not align with modern borders, and which are undocumented when illicitly extracted. While these legal frameworks further the norm of preserving cultural heritage, they are not robust enough to prevent the illicit trade funding terrorist organizations, paramilitaries and warlords during conflicts.
A major difficulty in replicating the successes of the Kimberley Process regulating the market in so-called 'blood diamonds' lies in the opacity of the antiquities trade itself.
Diamonds are openly traded, and ordinary people buy them. By contrast, the antiquities trade is a comparatively elite field that relatively few people are exposed to. The most obvious buyers, such as museums, tend to avoid purchasing articles that can be easily linked to paramilitary plunder. Most law enforcement agencies simply do not have the resources to identify genuine artefacts from replicas, or establish their places of origin. Auctioneers, dealers and collectors must act far more transparently. Much of the work being done to monitor the trade in illicit antiquities depends on open-source analysis, through which investigators are estimating the size of the trade, identifying gaps in legislation and regulation, and tracing the structure and functioning of illicit operations from source to market. Archaeologists and criminologists are widening the net for intelligence gathering on groups such as IS, detailing their financial structures, smuggling routes and supply chains. They can facilitate the mapping and management of regional conflict economies. Yet researchers repeatedly come up against opacity among some of the world’s largest auctioneers and traders who want to avoid negative publicity.
The authors argue for broadening the scope from the mere preservation of cultural heritage. They point out that this is one manifestation of a wider phenomenon connects with conflict situations which create the opportunities for criminals, terrorists and paramilitaries to engage in many other illicit enterprises, such as people or drug trafficking.
As law enforcement agencies and the military are over-stretched and struggle to control territory, borders become more porous, and networks of individuals and groups seeking to profit from their role as gate-keepers thrive. Those concerned with international security should be just as eager to tackle the trade in conflict antiquities as those wanting to protect cultural heritage.
Certainly this is a thought-provoking article, not least about the motives of the dealers' lobby which so far have only focussed on (contesting) the matters discussed in its first half and conveniently skipping over their own responsibilities in dealing with this problem.

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