Global Policy Forum

Iraq Seeks International Treaty Protecting Antique Artifacts

The cultural heritage of a country is one of the many casualties of war.  International treaties have played an important role in prohibiting the theft of cultural artifacts and facilitating repatriation.  However, despite the international laws in place, following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of artifacts were looted from Iraqi museums.  Many of these artifacts have now been returned, but Iraqi officials claim that archaeological sites are still in danger of theft and international laws must be strengthened to ensure their protection.

April 20, 2011

Iraq wants to conclude a new international agreement that will designate the dealing of antique Iraqi artifacts a crime, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports.

Iraqi officials said the goal is to preserve the country's heritage from thieves and smugglers.

Baha al-Mayyah, an adviser at the Iraqi Tourism and Historic Monuments Ministry, told RFE/RL on April 18 that "Archaeological sites are still in danger of being looted and are subject to illegal excavations in many places."

He said "the government is working on the possibility of concluding new international agreements that will designate dealing in ancient Iraqi artifacts a crime."

Ancient Mesopotamia, which is in Iraq, is considered to be the birthplace of human civilization. It was where such things as writing, complex agriculture, written laws, math, and science were developed.

During the first days after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the National Museum in Baghdad was severely looted. Al-Mayyah estimates that some 15,000 artifacts were stolen. Many have since been found and returned.

"But these artifacts were documented," he explained. "Worse things are happening at other archaeological sites where looting is still going on and unknown treasures are being torn out of the ground and taken out of the country," he added.

Iraq is rich in archaeological sites, but not all of them have been discovered. There have been few officially organized excavations in recent decades.

Al-Mayyah criticized the international community for not doing enough to deter smugglers and looters. He said Iraq wants to abolish the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property because it treats Iraq unfairly.

The 1970 convention urges signatory states to take all measures to prevent their museums from acquiring artifacts or art works illegally. It also urges countries to return such treasures to their country of origin.

"But these measures are applicable only to cases that occurred after 1970," al-Mayyah said. "As for objects obtained before that date, these countries are allowed to keep what they acquired, even if it was done illegally."

He added that Iraq plans to convene an international conference at the end of this year in Baghdad to discuss the creation of a new international organization.

"Its task would be to push for the cancellation or the amendment of the 1970 convention," al-Mayyah said. "It would have as members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage."

There are more than 12,000 archaeological sites in Iraq from the successive Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Islamic civilizations of the past 4,000-5,000 years.


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