Blood Antiquities: Addressing a Culture of Impunity in the Antiquities Market

By Williams, Paul R.; Coster, Christin | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Blood Antiquities: Addressing a Culture of Impunity in the Antiquities Market


Williams, Paul R., Coster, Christin, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


For decades, parties to conflicts have used the cover of war to destroy and loot cultural property and antiquities for financial gain and symbolic victory. The "blood antiquities " excavated in conflict areas and sold mostly in western markets fuel not only continued conflict, but also (as in cases such as Syria and Iraq) terrorism that can reach around the world. The culture of impunity for both buyers and sellers of antiquities allows the blood-antiquities trade to thrive.

A robust international legal framework does exist to ensure accountability for the destruction of cultural heritage. Because looting is a major cause of destruction, it should be included in this framework. The successful prosecution of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of deliberately attacking historical and cultural monuments bodes well for an end to impunity. Yet, this paper argues that international and domestic systems of regulation and certification are also needed to establish criminal liability and eliminate the willful ignorance of buyers.

CONTENTS

I.     INTRODUCTION
II.    BLOOD ANTIQUITIES
III.   CULTURE OF IMPUNITY
IV.    INTERNATIONAL LEGAL FRAMEWORKS TO PROTECT CULTURAL HERITAGE
V.     RELIANCE ON DOMESTIC LEGAL FRAMEWORKS
VI.    ENDING IMPUNITY

I. INTRODUCTION

On August 22, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi pled guilty at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of deliberately attacking historical and cultural monuments--the first ever prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage in front of the ICC. (1) In the summer of 2012, Al Mahdi led a task force of Ansar Dine jihadists to destroy historic tombs in Timbuktu, Mali, which had attracted African and Middle Eastern Muslim pilgrims for centuries. (2) The Muslim extremists occupied Timbuktu for nearly a year before French forces finally ousted them. (3) The case against Al Mahdi provides some hope that more perpetrators will be brought to justice for destroying cultural property and antiquities, including the members of ISIS who have left a trail of ruin across Iraq and Syria. ISIS, however, not only destroys cultural sites, but also loots them and exploits the antiquities trade to raise substantial funds to sponsor its operations. (4) The lack of accountability for looting and purchasing illegal antiquities allows terrorism and conflict to flourish in the Middle East.

II. BLOOD ANTIQUITIES

Just as "blood diamonds" helped to fund devastating conflict in Western, Central, and Southern Africa, "blood antiquities" are financing terrorism and conflict in the Middle East. (5) Although ISIS claims to destroy some sites purely out of religious zeal, attempting to erase all signs of what they call idolatry, (6) ISIS and the Syrian regime have both been accused of looting cultural heritage sites like Palmyra for profit. (7) Although the precise profits that ISIS generates from looting are difficult to calculate, estimates range from $200 million to $8 billion. (8) The Wall Street Journal emphasized the importance of this income stream when it reported that looted antiquities are ISIS's second-largest source of financing after oil. (9)

Syrians on the ground report that ISIS issues licenses to loot in exchange for a 20-50 percent tax on the proceeds. (10) Indeed, a U.S.-led raid on the compound of ISIS's oil-smuggling and antiquities-trade commander provided evidence of this practice. (11) The commander possessed an assortment of artifacts and receipts showing a 20-percent tax on precious materials, including antiquities and minerals collected from civilians. (12)

Evidence suggests that thieves are storing many looted antiquities in warehouses for a cooling-off period, after which they will be more difficult to trace. (13) In March 2015, a police raid in Bulgaria uncovered a stash of items thought to be from the Sumerian city of Lagash, in Southern Iraq. (14)

According to experts, traffickers and middlemen use a vast network of smuggling channels, many through Lebanon or Turkey, to move the antiquities from their country of origin to international markets. …

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