Sunday 1 March 2015

UN ban on export of antiquities targets Islamic State funding

On February 12 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199 to respond to the threat posed by the insurgent group Islamic State and affiliated terrorist entities. The resolution condemned any trade with the IS, and set out sanctions aimed at undermining their ability to raise funds through the trade of antiquities, as well as from the trade of oil, hostages, arms and receiving donations.

In relation to the looting of antiquities, the Resolution:
  • condemned the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria (whether incidental or deliberate), including targeted destruction of religious sites and objects;
  • noted with concern that the IS, Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida affiliates are generating income from the direct or indirect trade in looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items, which is being used to bolster their recruitment drive and operational capabilities;
  • reaffirmed an existing ban on the illicit trade of antiquities from Iraq, which was first imposed in 2003 during the Iraqi War and calls upon Member States to take preventative action in relation to such trade; and
  • extended this ban to the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria.
The text of the resolution was co-sponsored ‘in a rare display of unity’ by all 15 Security Council members (in contrast to deadlock over Syria’s civil war and the Ukrainian conflict), and the news was welcomed by representatives of Russia, China, the UK, the US and Jordan, as well as UNESCO’s Director-General, who called it “a milestone for enhanced protection of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria."

The ban follows intelligence obtained in 2014, 2 days before the capture of Mosul by extremists, that revealed the IS had cash and assets of around $875m (£516m). After the fall of Mosul and consequent looting of banks and capturing of military supplies, this is estimated to have risen to about $2bn. The link between terror financing and stolen antiquities is one that has been widely-reported, although it has been difficult to estimate exactly how much revenue has been generated by IS from the trafficking of antiquities as well as the proceeds from taxing looters. An Iraqi intelligence official said, "They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old". 
"Before this, the western officials had been asking us where they had gotten some of their money from, $50,000 here, or $20,000 there. It was peanuts. Now they know and we know. They had done this all themselves. There was no state actor at all behind them, which we had long known. They don't need one."
Meanwhile, the BBC has just released a report on the trade of antiquities from Syria through Turkey and Lebanon to Europe, featuring firsthand accounts from some of the men involved in the trafficking of cultural objects for the IS. It is interesting to note that at a local level the tide is turning against the smugglers:

‘Mohammed is still involved in cross-border trade, but no longer in antiquities. “Anyone caught with it gets severe punishment,” he says. “They accuse you of being IS.”’

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