The relevance of arts trafficking for international security

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Dying lion

Hall reliefs from the North Palace at Nineveh, across the Tigris River from Mosul, Iraq. [Steven Zucker/Flickr]

Over the past two centuries, abuse of antiquities and fine art has evolved from the “spoils of war” into a method of financing terrorism. Nowadays, both the US and UK are concerned about antiquities trafficking as a source of funding for ISIS, leading to calls for international cooperation to counter the market, writes Erik Nemeth.

Erik Nemeth is Director at Cultural Security, a US-based non-profit organisation. His latest book, Cultural Security, was published by Imperial College Press.

In international security, cultural property has taken on an increasing role since the Taliban’s demolition of the giant statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan in 2001.

Examples include the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad in 2003, Ansar Dine’s destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali in 2012, and the looting of cultural artifacts in Egypt and other nations of Arab spring. Most recently, ISIS’s exploitation of cultural property has intensified interest in measuring antiquities trafficking and tracking the destruction of libraries, museums, mosques, and shrines.

Culture plays an important role in security, and the influence is measurable. National security strategies have leveraged culture in diplomacy, and tangible, cultural property increasingly holds significance for international security. In particular, the exploitation of cultural artifacts and monuments by non-state actors poses a current threat with long-term ramifications.

Presently, groups such as ISIS terrorise locals with the destruction of mosques and derive funding from looted cultural artifacts. The destruction and looting are also aspects of cultural cleansing, which creates long-term political risk.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States leveraged its culture as soft power to gain popularity abroad. Over the past decade, however, officials in China have referred to parts of US culture, such as American pop music, as a threat to Chinese “cultural security”.

More recently, The Economist has suggested that President Vladimir Putin has, at least in part, justified support of rebels in Ukraine as a guard against the threat of Western culture compromising Russian culture. While China and Russia seek to protect national culture, warfare in Syria and Iraq is placing world cultural heritage at risk. But how might the influence of culture in security be measured?

The international art market illustrates the potential for one measure of the perceived value of culture. The estimated $66-billion market in art and antiques also has implications for security. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, Nouriel Roubini expressed concern over the art market in view of the risk of tax evasion and money laundering. The interrelation of cultural property and security, however, extends beyond suspected links to white-color and organised crime. For example, governments strive to minimise collateral damage of cultural property in military engagement, and militants and terrorist groups from Mali to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan target religious monuments in political violence and loot archeological sites for profit.

International conventions for the protection of cultural property confer political clout on tangible expressions of culture. Two prominent examples are the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Widespread acceptance, accession, and ratification of the conventions have made many European and other nations responsible for the security of foreign cultures.

The resulting political significance of cultural property offers a starting point for measuring the influence of culture in foreign policy and international security.

In foreign policy, Europe has a long history of political tension over ownership of antiquities and artworks. Greece’s call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the United Kingdom has persisted for two centuries, and Germany’s possession of the Bust of Nefertiti has been a point of contention with Egypt for nearly a century. More recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel called on President Putin to return artworks that Soviet troops removed from German territory as reparations for Nazi plunder and destruction of Slavic cultural property during World War II. Mr. Putin did not concede. Late in 2014, the British Museum announced plans to loan one of the controversial Parthenon Marbles to the State Hermitage Museum. The announcement, in turn, incensed Greece, in that the United Kingdom has cited fragility as one reason against the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

The aforementioned conventions have created opportunity for nations to call for the return of prized artworks and antiquities from foreign museums. Between 2005 and 2007, Italy and Greece succeeded in gaining landmark repatriations from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. Subsequently, a number of nations from Turkey to New Zealand have made claims against museums throughout the United States and Europe.

Tracking the number and outcome of repatriation cases provides an example of a statistic on the significance of culture in foreign policy. Categorising the cases by “source nation” and “collecting nation” allows for geographic visualisation of the prevalence. Further tracking of information on the number of government agencies involved in a case would provide a more detailed quantifiable assessment of the role that cultural property plays in the foreign policy of particular nations.