The illicit trafficking of cultural goods is increasing day by day and spares no parts of the world. The openings of borders, the escalating number of conflicts, poverty, but also the overall price hikes in the arts markets are factors which explain why illicit trade of cultural goods - mainly works of arts and heritage – is now the third most significant illegal trade after drugs and arms. The trade is estimated to be worth USD 10 billion annually. . The ‘gentleman-art thief’ as projected by Hollywood does not fit reality. This illicit trade is dominated by organised criminal networks and done through illegal excavations. Too often the illegal cultural goods are used as collaterals for other illegal business such as money laundering, tax evasion and terrorism. The results are not only a huge financial loss and increases of criminality. The stolen cultural artefacts often end up being damaged and the gangs are leaving sites adversely deteriorated and the local population deprived from their collective history and identity.
A cultural good is a witness of its time. It is a visible sign, through which individuals can acknowledge their membership to a community and better understand its story. It is therefore essential to protect African cultural goods since they constitute an infinite wealth for the human development.
It is along those lines that the workshop on “the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Goods” was organised in Casablanca, Morocco, from 9 – 11 January 2014, with the support of the Joint Africa EU Strategy Support Mechanism.
The meeting – bringing together over 80 experts representing African and European governments, African regional organisations, the African Union Commission, the European Commission but also international organisations – was carried out in preparation of the Africa EU Summit which will take place in Brussels, in April 2014.
Based on practical cases, discussions contributed to sensitize stakeholders and experts on the relevance of the protection of cultural goods against plundering, theft and illicit trafficking within a perspective of stability, security and sustainable development. Specifically the meeting pushed ahead on the four relevant activities done within the framework of the Africa-EU Partnership:
- Increased understanding of situations, trends and dynamics of inventories ;
- Improved and digitalized inventories
- Improved cooperation between customs and customs in heritage management;
- Capacity-building and improved policies & monitoring programmes.
The experts reviewed the most appropriate means to sensitize traders, museum curators, and police and customs staff with a view to better protecting cultural heritage. They also showed that looting and trade networks can effectively be tackled by both the African and the European Unions through relatively small but targeted operations.
At the end of the meeting, participants formulated a clear message and operational recommendations intended to help decision-makers with the implementation of policies in favour of the protection of cultural goods policy. Experts agreed that the fight against this illegal trade must be reinforced and diversified at the international level. Africa and the EU should lead the efforts, also because nearly all stolen African cultural artefacts are either transiting through Europe or destined for the internal market.
Operationally the experts recommended to pursue:
- Establishment of a central databank and of a Pan-African institution dedicated to the monitoring of illicit trade of cultural goods ;
- Systematic establishment of inventories of cultural goods at national level;
- Capacity-building and networking with stakeholders involved in the protection of cultural goods with a view to facilitating information sharing ;
- Increasing the role and participation of local populations in the fight against looting, theft and illicit trafficking of cultural goods ;
- Review and strengthening of national legislation promoting the protection of cultural goods.
The IV Africa-EU Summit will consider these messages and operational consideration in April 2014.