France builds grand alliance to protect cultural heritage

Louvre director’s plan calls for co-ordinated response to destruction in Syria and Iraq

Much closer co-operation between European authorities, shelters for endangered cultural property, the naming and shaming of countries that serve as havens for smugglers and strengthened laws against trafficking are among 50 “concrete and operational” measures announced by the French president, François Hollande, to protect cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria. Many propositions have already been put forward by Unesco at numerous international meetings. Will French leadership make a difference?

Pointing the finger at cultural freeports “existing even in Europe”, Hollande announced that France will start to control imports of archaeological works and create “refuges” where museum collections and recovered goods can be held.

The proposals were made in a report prepared by the director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, and presented by Hollande to Unesco’s General Conference on 17 November. Speaking just four days after the terrorist attack in the heart of Paris, Hollande stressed that the “huge wave of emotion created by the destruction in the Middle East” could trigger a global response against the illicit trade.

The document was given to all European culture ministers in Brussels. Some of the recommendations were included in a discussion paper, including spreading the International Council of Museums’ red lists among law enforcement services and “documenting and cataloguing sites”. But the European Commission pointed out that very few seizures were registered on the continent, and Luxembourg, chairing the meeting, took great care not to mention the case of the freeports.

France and Germany’s culture ministers, Fleur Pellerin and Monika Grütters, promised to meet to increase co-operation in Europe against trafficking. Discussions to draw up a joint set of proposals have already begun between the Oriental antiquities departments of the Louvre and Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. The Louvre also plans to co-ordinate its training programme for Iraqi archaeologists and museum professionals with the British Museum in London.

Martinez believes that his report provides the basis for a global action plan to protect cultural heritage in war zones. France, which “undoubtedly has a special responsibility on these issues”, according to him, is ready to take the lead. But he also asked his own country to abide by international treaties, such as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and Unesco’s 1970 convention, ensuring that they are translated into national law.

Call to sign Hague Convention

In particular, Martinez is pressing for the ratification of the Second Protocol reinforcing the Hague Convention, which came into force in 2004, but which France, like the UK and the US, refused to sign. These countries also rejected the 1998 Unidroit Convention, which sets down measures of cultural heritage protection for the art market and private collections. Another suggestion is to establish an endowment fund for safeguarding and rebuilding heritage, although such a fund already exists and is managed by Unesco. Martinez’s proposal may be more difficult to get off the ground, considering the reluctance of many nations to implement the raft of treaties already in existence.

His report stresses that the trafficking of cultural goods contributes to the resources available to extremists in Syria and Iraq. Isil has set up an administrative structure to control and exploit this resource, although the extent of the revenue is subject to wild speculation and cannot possibly be estimated.

The proposals made by Martinez that could make the most difference are also the most difficult ones to implement, such as the publication of a “black list” of trafficking havens. He denounces the role of the freeports in Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore, and those being set up in China. He calls for a European observatory that would identify routes and methods used by traffickers, track the art market and establish a database of stolen or seized cultural artefacts. He asks for a harmonisation of European laws and tougher penalties for traffickers.

“The extremists want to destroy the past and obliterate the memories of whole peoples; we want to build the future,” Martinez says, stressing that “a coalition of cultural actors” is required.