Switzerland limits trade in Syrian cultural property

Posted on: January 14, 2015 by

On 17 December 2014, the Swiss Federal Council extended the existing sanctions against Syria by introducing a trade ban on cultural objects which were stolen or illegally exported from Syria.

The EU had introduced a similar trade ban on 13 December 2013. According to Article 11c, which was inserted by the EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 to the EU Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria, trade in Syrian cultural property is prohibited “where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law”.

With the Cultural Property Transfer Act (‘CPTA’), which entered into force on 1 June 2005, Switzerland has an effective tool to prevent the import of stolen cultural objects. However, with regards to illegally imported cultural objects, which are not stolen, the EU rules go further as they explicitly refer to the applicable Syrian law. Due to their public nature, foreign export laws are only enforced in Switzerland in cases where a bilateral agreement with the foreign state exists (art. 7 CPTA). To this day, no such bilateral agreement exists with Syria.

In order to close this gap vis-à-vis the EU and to prevent Switzerland from becoming a hub for trade in illegally exported Syrian cultural property, the Ordinance on Sanctions against Syria of 8 June 2012 (‘Ordinance’) was revised on 17 December 2014. According to the newly inserted art. 9a para. 1 of the Ordinance, it is prohibited to import, export, transfer, sell, buy, distribute and provide brokering services related to cultural property of Syria, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that “lit. a the items have been stolen or removed from Syria without the consent of their rightful owner or lit. b the items have been illegally exported from Syria”. Cultural property is believed to have been illegally exported from Syria if it is listed in the inventories of public Syrian collections, Syrian museums, archives, libraries and religious institutions (art. 9 para. 2 Ordinance). According to art. 9a para. 3 of the Ordinance, the trade ban does not apply if it is demonstrated that the cultural objects were exported from Syria prior to 19 May 2011, the day on which the Swiss Federal Council first enacted sanctions against Syria in the wake of the Syria crisis, or that the objects are being safely returned to their rightful owner in Syria. It is worth noting that the recently revised Federal Act on the Protection of Cultural Property (‘APCP’) specifically allows for cultural property from regions with on-going conflicts/crises to be held in temporary fiduciary custody in Switzerland, if they are at risk in their country of origin (see arts. 2 lit. c and 12 APCP).

A violation of the trade ban according to art. 9c of the Ordinance constitutes a criminal offence and is subject to harsh penalties (art. 20 Ordinance in connection with art. 9 Federal Act on the Implementation of International Sanctions, Embargo Act (‘EmbA’)). Acting negligently may lead to imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of a maximum of 100,000 Swiss francs (art. 9 para. 3 EmbA), acting intentionally may lead to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 500,000 Swiss francs (art. 9 para. 1 EmbA). In serious cases, the penalty is imprisonment of up to five years which may be combined with a fine of up to 1 million Swiss francs (Art. 9 para. 2 EmbA). Furthermore, the cultural property will be seized (see Art. 13 EmbA).

Switzerland had introduced a similar trade ban on cultural objects from the Republic of Iraq on 25 June 2013 (see art. 1a of the Ordinance on Economic Measures against the Republic of Iraq).

Other countries are also taking actions to protect Syrian cultural property  see IAL blog contributions on the American response and the UK response.