UNESCO calls for worldwide emergency steps to recover Iraq’s looted heritage

UNESCO head Koïchiro Matsuura

17 April 2003 – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), called today for comprehensive worldwide emergency measures to recover Iraq’s looted antiquities, including a temporary Security Council embargo on the acquisition of any Iraqi artefacts.

“Despite all your expertise and good will, the fate of Iraqi heritage does not lie in your hands,” Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura told international experts summoned to UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to decide on emergency steps following the looting of museums, libraries and other Iraqi cultural centres, principally in Baghdad and Mosul.

“It lies in the hands of the international community as a whole, and the only way that we will be able to safeguard these treasures and give them back to humanity is if we can count on the cohesion, coordination and determination of all concerned, at every level,” he said.

He said he intended to ask UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to submit the question of illicit traffic to the Security Council “so that a resolution can be adopted which imposes an embargo, for a limited period, on the acquisition of all Iraqi cultural objects and calls for the return of such goods to Iraq if acquisitions or exports of this kind have already taken place.”

Such a resolution, he noted, could thus be made applicable to the 191 UN Member States and not only to the 97 states parties to the 1970 Convention on cooperation for the recovery and return of stolen archaeological, historical and cultural properties.

Mr. Matsuura reiterated yet again his appeal to all states to adopt emergency legal and administrative measures to prevent the importation of any cultural, archaeological or bibliographical object that had recently left Iraq and called on museums, art dealers and private collectors to exclude such objects from any commercial transactions.

He stressed the necessity to take emergency measures in Iraq “such as the setting-up by the authorities on the ground of a nationwide ‘heritage police,’ entrusted with the task of watching over cultural sites and institutions, including libraries and buildings where archives are stored.”

He also called for a database to be compiled as soon as possible, combining all of the archives, lists and inventories relating to Iraq’s heritage, to enable customs and police authorities, art dealers and all concerned parties to identify the status of a particular object.

The group of 30 experts, including archaeologists, all with experience in Iraq, approved a number of “very urgent recommendations” for a strategy of action. These included a call to secure Iraqi cultural institutions and make sure that in the future there would be no further looting, and a ban on all trade of cultural objects coming from Iraq.

They also agreed to send as soon as possible a mission to evaluate the damages and to prepare a plan of action for the rehabilitation of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

UNESCO has already announced that it is working with the international police organization Interpol, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the culture ministries of Iraq’s neighbours in seeking the recovery of the looted objects.

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