ISIS in Iraq: How much looting?

Posted on: August 26, 2014 by

A few recent articles have reported on the looting of antiquities from the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): in The Guardian in June, The Sunday Times in July and the International Business Times.

It is unclear from the sources whether such looting is actually being perpetrated by members of ISIS or whether the group is merely regulating or controlling the burgeoning trade in uncovered artefacts from the region. There have been claims that ISIS has placed a tax on all sales of antiquities, as well as permitted looting on a vast scale at the hitherto unexcavated site of Dura Europos in Syria.

Because ISIS now controls large areas of Iraq, it seems likely that stolen or looted Iraqi artefacts could soon make their way onto the international black market. Such a situation would bring up the issue of the treatment of looted cultural objects hailing from Iraq.

Following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 that dealt with, among other things, the restoration of looted Iraqi cultural property. The UN Resolution led the way in the UK to the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003, which places severe restrictions on dealing in Iraqi cultural objects in the UK. As a result, it is often said, that no other country’s cultural property is protected to the same extent as that of Iraq. For instance, the 2003 Order makes it an offence in the UK to import, export, deal in (which includes buying, hiring, borrowing, accepting, selling, letting, hiring, lending or giving) or even ‘hold’ (without notifying a constable) any illegally removed Iraqi cultural property. What is most surprising is that the Order creates a reverse-onus offence for such acts, meaning that any one accused of an offence has the burden of proving that he or she did not know (or had no reason to know) that the object was illegally removed Iraqi cultural property.

It may only be a matter of time before more looted antiquities from Iraq arrive on Albion’s shore. Although no prosecutions had previously been brought under the 2003 Order, ISIS’s recent success in Iraq may prompt more. If looted antiquities are being sold and exported from the region, the global antiquities market must react. At least with regards to material coming from Iraq, a mechanism is in place in the UK to circumvent the illicit trade. The offences under the 2003 Order are cause for concern for anyone dealing in such material.

Can the same be said of items coming out of Syria? On 8th August 2014, a statutory instrument came into force in the UK, which prohibits many of the same actions regarding Syrian cultural property. The Export Control (Syria Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 prohibits the import, export, transfer, or provision of brokering services for the import, export or transfer, of Syrian cultural property (and certain other goods), where there are reasonable grounds to suspect they have been removed illegally or without the consent of their owner.

The stakes are high: the future of some of the Middle East’s oldest and greatest cultural sites may be in the balance…