Combating heritage crime: the international perspective

Posted on: August 9, 2017 by

As promised in our post last week, having looked at developments in the fight against heritage crime in the UK, we’re now turning our attention to the international context.

We were considering in particular a number of interesting developments across a range of disciplines: the law, military practice, technology and community engagement.

As regards the law, we noted the imminent ratification by the UK of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and, in connection with this, the development of a specialist cultural protection unit within the British Armed Forces.

The task this unit will face is somewhat daunting. As our blog post last month highlighted, the challenges (legal, evidential and practical) involved in bringing to justice those committing crimes against cultural property in conflict situations are manifold. Much depends on whether the particular states concerned have signed up to the relevant international treaties. That said, the conviction in September 2016 of the Islamist militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for his role in directing attacks against heritage sites in Timbuktu possibly represents a step forward in this regard. The case was noteworthy as the first prosecution for war crimes in the International Criminal Court where cultural property offences were the main charge. It resulted in a nine year prison sentence for Al-Mahdi.

It is hoped that the £30 million Cultural Protection Fund announced by the UK Government in 2016 will enable the UK to play a greater role in addressing the practical challenges involved in combating heritage crime internationally. The fund is now supporting nineteen projects working in conflict-affected countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

The technological advances we discussed in last week’s post will be important internationally as well as in the UK. The possibility of using forensic marking on important heritage assets in areas of conflict such as Syria has already been mooted. Research being conducted both in the UK and abroad into methods for combatting cybercrime and for the development of ‘crime-stopper’ apps for smartphones will undoubtedly have significant benefits for heritage crime detection and prevention across the globe.

Such technology will facilitate the engagement of the public at large in the effort to protect vulnerable cultural property. Initiatives such as the India Pride Project have recognised the importance of involving the wider community: the mission of the group is to secure the return to India of cultural objects looted from the country with the aid of public participation. The importance of getting local people involved is undoubtedly crucial for those working to protect cultural property in conflict zones. In areas experiencing breakdown of law and order or wider governmental collapse, there are frequently no ‘official’ enforcement authorities with whom to work. Without the support of local communities in protecting the sites and objects they treasure, there is little hope for NGOs or other agencies to offer any practical solutions in the face of widespread looting and devastation. This is clearly recognised by the Heritage Protection Initiative, TDA (The Day After), an organisation concerned with the protection of cultural heritage in the most dangerous areas of Syria. It is led by Syrian citizens and reaches out to a network of local activists in an effort to save Syria’s heritage for future generations.

So what can we conclude from this whistle-stop tour of recent developments in heritage crime prevention? The challenges are immense and show no signs of abating, either in the UK or elsewhere. If anything, their complexity and intensity has increased in recent decades, particularly in the context of conflict situations. There are signs, however, that the level of awareness about these issues and the consequent drive to ‘do something about it’ has increased correspondingly. It is self-evident that we can’t recreate historic sites devastated by combatants in Syria any more than we can resurrect an original lead roof plundered from a village church in the UK. What we can do, however, is to pool the resources available across many disciplines to develop innovative responses to these threats, and to support their implementation at a practical level.