Cultural Memoranda of Understanding: An Important Diplomatic Tool for Protecting Heritage

07/14/2017 07:31 am ET

As the world’s largest art market, the United States is the premier destination for the legitimate trade in art and antiquities—but also for its darker counterpart—the illicit trade.

Since the Arab Spring triggered organized looting and trafficking throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and others have voiced their frustration over the unregulated sale of their heritage in the United States and the difficulty in halting this illicit trade.

Fortunately, the U.S. State Department has now taken a proactive approach to educating countries about what steps they can take to better ensure that looted antiquities do not enter the United States.

The best tool in their diplomatic arsenal is the cultural memorandum of understanding (MOU). The United States has the authority to enter such agreements imposing import restrictions on designated archaeological and ethnological material coming into the country through the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which is based on the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. These MOUs have benefits for all parties.

Despite their heritage being under siege since 2011, only one MENA country has signed a cultural heritage agreement with the United States—the Arab Republic of Egypt. But that is soon to change, we hope.

The government of Libya has submitted a request for the U.S. government to restrict imports of their patrimony. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee—which counsels the State Department on matters of heritage—will hear arguments on July 19-20 regarding whether the Libyans’ request holds merit.

These agreements are an effective tool in limiting the illegal trade while promoting cultural exchanges. And given the crisis that Libya is facing, we urge the Committee to make an expeditious decision.

The recent case against arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby for the illegal import of over 5000 ancient artifacts from Iraq is just one high profile example of why these agreements are needed.

While technically not an MOU, after the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, Congress passed legislation for Iraq to provide protections similar to those a cultural agreement would grant. Could it be because of these import restrictions that Hobby Lobby falsified their shipping documents to indicate that the country of origin was Turkey—with whom we do not have an agreement? For a company with significant experience in importing products for its craft business, it seems like more than a “rookie mistake.”

The intent of these agreements is not to halt the legitimate trade. As long as the importer or the purchaser has a viable export license from the country of origin, or proof that an artifact left it before the import restrictions were implemented, and then declares the import on shipping documents appropriately, the artifact may be brought into the country legally.

But with violent extremist organizations increasingly using conflict antiquities to fund terrorism, the U.S. government should be aggressively enforcing its existing rules and regulations to ensure that our market is not a source of financing for these deadly acts. We hope—and expect —to see more MENA countries taking advantage of these existing tools to help protect our shared heritage.

In the meantime, buyers should also beware. There is much that they can do to prevent themselves from suffering Hobby Lobby’s fate. Use the checklist here before purchasing any antiquities, especially from countries in conflict.

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