EU gets tough on trafficking in antiquities

The European Commission is planning to strengthen import regulations to tackle the scourge of illicit trafficking in stolen artefacts.

The proposed rules were laid out at a meeting of the Commission last Thursday (13 July). Part of the Commission’s action plan to strengthen the fight against terrorism financing, the new European Union framework bans the import of goods into the EU, which were illegally removed from their home countries. Under the old framework only goods from Iraq and Syria are subject to import prohibitions.

EU economy commissioner, Pierre Moscovici said the new rules were necessary to stem the trade in looted objects from war-torn countries used to fund terrorist groups. “Money is a weapon of war for those terrorists who target our continent or who are engaged in fighting in Iraq and Syria… we must at all costs diminish their sources of financing, starting with the trafficking of stolen art”, Moscovici told the Financial Times.

Current rules on importing cultural goods lack uniformity among EU member states. This has given rise to a practice called ‘port-shopping’ in which traffickers make multiple stops in EU countries with weaker regulations to create a false paper trail and conceal an object’s provenance.

The proposed EU rules prescribe what information importers will be required to give customs officials and national cultural ministries about objects they are seeking to import, which are at least 250 years old. Sculptures, monuments, old manuscripts and books will be subject to the most stringent regulations.

Importers will have to prove that objects were exported legally before they will be allowed to enter the EU. Authorities will have 90 days in which to examine their claims and either grant an export licence or exercise a new power to seize and retain goods. The regulatory framework also stipulates that those found guilty of trafficking goods must face punitive sanctions.

The looting of priceless antiquities is just one aspect of the systematic attack on cultural heritage led by terrorist organisations such as Isis in the Middle East. In 2015, the famed Palmyra arch entrance to the Temple of Bel in Syria was reduced to rubble by Isis fighters.

The EU’s latest anti-trafficking efforts have been inspired by recent cases such as that of two stolen 500-year-old bas reliefs shipped from Lebanon and intercepted on their way to Thailand. Held in crates marked as containing garden ornaments, the reliefs were seized en route by officials at Roissy Airport in Paris.

Read our coverage of UK efforts to protect cultural property threatened by armed conflict here.

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