The Arch of Triumph in the archaeological city of Palmyra has been a virtual entry-way into the UNESCO World Heritage Site for 1,800 years. It has seen armies come and go, and empires rise and fall, but this week, the ancient city saw its own arch fall, in an heinous attack on our collective cultural heritage.
Having destroyed other ancient temples in Palmyra – and tortured and executed the city’s chief archeologist in an effort to find hidden treasures – it has been reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that ISIS, which took control of the Syrian city this summer, blew up the historic triumphal arch. And while we may now only have its memory, we may also recall that the long arm of justice has a memory too, when it comes to criminality applied to our collective identity.
While ISIS was planning its attack, leaders of the civilized world met at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to inaugurate the Sustainable Development Goals. And while the meeting provided an opportunity for sovereigns, the UN and civil society to coalesce behind the formation of 17 new “Global Goals” – the Governments of Niger and Mali, UNESCO and the International Criminal Court (ICC), working together, made an initial down-payment on Goals 16 (peace and justice) and 17 (partnerships for the goals). That is because they collaborated to help with the investigation, arrest and surrender of an alleged perpetrator of cultural destruction in ancient Timbuktu, a World Heritage Site. And in doing so, they may have set the groundwork for future prosecutions for the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage.
By working to protect cultural heritage and bring a perpetrator to justice, these actors are helping to promote access to justice and accountability. In addition, they are fostering global partnership for implementation of laws, which is an important element of government stability and economic development — all highlighted at the UNGA as Global Goals.
The handing of Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi (Abut Tourab) by the Niger government to the ICC is significant because it is the first specific case brought before the court “concerning the destruction of buildings dedicated to religion and historical monuments” during an armed conflict of a non-international character.
Al Faqi was a member of Ansar Dine, an al qaeda-linked group that controlled northern Mali in 2012. During this time, he purportedly executed the so-called Islamic Court of Timbuktu’s decisions to vandalize and destroy mosques and mausoleums, and burn tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.
That an international court should take-up a case involving cultural destruction is not unprecedented. Indeed, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where one of the authors once worked, prosecutors brought before the court Pavle Strugar, who was accused of destroying historical sites during an international armed conflict not justified by military necessity. The court found that under the orders of Strugar, military units unlawfully shelled the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, including the Old Town (a UNESCO protected site). Strugar was found guilty and sentenced to eight years imprisonment (the sentence was later revised on appeal).
Bringing Al Faqi to the ICC is that much more important today, as extremist forces and criminal groups in the Middle East — such as ISIS — are involved in what UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova calls “cultural cleansing” and war crimes. Indeed, at a UN meeting this week, the UNESCO chief noted that the ICC case sends “a very important message” adding that “impunity is not an option” and that such crimes would be prosecuted. As to underscore her statement, Bokova’s presentation was followed by an intervention by the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda.
For more than a year now, ISIS and others have systematically destroyed the cultural heritage of the people of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Not only have they shelled and bulldozed priceless historical/cultural/religious sites such as the city of Nimrud, Jonah’s Tomb, and temples in Palmyra, but they have also plundered them.
Today, the black market in antiquities stolen from Syria, Iraq and the surrounding regions is estimated to be worth millions of dollars. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, looting represents the second highest revenue source for ISIS, after oil.
ISIS seems to follow a two-fold strategy. It destroys large monuments, sculptures, temples (that it likely cannot sell in the black market due to their size, etc.) for propaganda purposes. At the same time, ISIS is actively plundering smaller/midsize objects, and according to U.S. officials, providing others with licenses to loot and collecting taxes from them — and even establishing a trafficking network managed by their “ministry of antiquities.”
The magnitude of destruction brought upon by ISIS, in terms of human loss, cultural cleansing, the obliteration of history and cultural/religious diversity will have repercussions for many generations to come. However, fighting the trafficking of such “blood antiquities” into global markets, which help finance death and destruction, is an attainable, short-term goal.
Over the last year, members of the international community have discussed the challenge posed by ISIS. And while some antiquities industry leaders have urged for “solutions” such as “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria — it is understandable that governments are unlikely to devote the blood of their children — their men and women in uniform – to protect against such plunder and destruction in far-away lands (not that any country has the force structure to protect such massive sites). Indeed, in the United States, just one percent of the population volunteers to serve in uniform, thus it is imperative that the other 99 percent be leading the solution. It seems fitting, then, that the leadership of this 99 percent should include the private sector, which benefits from the legitimate sale and distribution of cultural heritage from the Middle East (auction houses, dealers, insurance/transport companies, free-ports, etc.)
With the launch of the Global Goals, it is imperative that leaders in the antiquities-related industries move beyond words and take specific action against the trafficking of blood antiquities. Indeed, as highlighted by UNESCO’s Bokova, “it is immoral, it is unethical, and it is a threat against peace and security” to trade in such antiquities.
Any initiative against trafficking antiquities from conflict zones needs to be comprehensive, multidisciplinary and involve both the private and public sectors. The World Economic Forum in Davos can perhaps serve as a platform for dialogue among diverse stakeholders, such as, governments, law enforcement, collectors, and relevant industries. They should consider adopting a common sales, sourcing, and due diligence standard, to curb the profit on the sale of blood antiquities, learning from such examples as a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” “Fair Trade” coffee, or the Kimberly Process for conflict diamonds.
Indeed, such a suggestion was just highlighted by the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Ioannis Kasoulides, at a UN-UNESCO-INTERPOL discussion hosted by the Governments of Jordan and Italy.
“We have to break the business model of such illicit trade,” said the Minister, adding that the burden of proof for ownership of any potential looted antiquity from a possible conflict zone, should fall on the seller, rather than a state trying to recover such blood antiquities. Underscoring suggestions made by other experts, he concluded: “perhaps we need something similar to the Kimberly Process for conflict diamonds,” to help bring real change to the illicit market.
If governments and industry leaders decide to work together, they are in a position to limit the value of such blood antiquities, and thus limit the terrorist financing going to ISIS. And in doing so, they will help preserve the cultural heritage that binds us all, which some day, will serve as a common bond that can help bring warring parties together to find peace.
United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson likes to highlight that: “no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” The world may not be able to send in armies to guard the cradle of civilization from being plundered, but the world’s leaders in the antiquities-related industries can do something to further the Global Goals, and to help prevent the plunder and sale of our collective cultural heritage.
This article is a revised version of a piece published in collaboration with The Huffington Post. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Mark V. Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served on Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Army officer, he served as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-United Nations Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, and is now an advisor to the Director-General of UNESCO.
Dr. Helga Turku, who previously worked for the International Organization for Migration, San Francisco State University, and Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky Wotkyns LLP, is a consultant for USAID-funded rule of law projects in Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire.
Image: The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants. REUTERS/Joe Penney.