Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Looting in Iraq

Le Monde Diplomatique has an article about the looting of historical artifacts, especially in war zones. It reaffirms one of the failures of the American-led invasion of Iraq, namely the failure to do anything to sufficiently protect antiquities and historical artifacts from being looted in Iraq.
Since 1991 4,000 objects of archaeological interest have been stolen from museums in Iraq. In 2001 a large number of bas-reliefs from the Sennacherib palace were taken down: John Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, called this "the final sack of Nineveh". But as Iraqi archaeologist Donny Georges warned in 2003: "If the Americans attack, the looting of historic sites will be infinitely worse than in 1991 . . . The looters have had time to organise their trade network and build up an international clientele. They are powerful and armed."

By July 2003 archaeologist and journalist Joanne Farchakh confirmed these fears: "Jokha, where the prestigious Sumerian city of Umma was unearthed just four years ago, looks like a battlefield." According to American archaeologist McGuire Gibson, most sites in southern Iraq are still being looted. In the north, United States soldiers now protect the sites (officially at least), but they did not bother to do this until after the looters had helped themselves to the bas-reliefs of Hatra and Nimrud and destroyed those of Nineveh.

There is some suspicion that the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), an association of major collectors in the US, may have had a hand in ensuring the failure of careless US troops to protect these treasures. Some of its members met high-ranking officials from the Pentagon and the state department on 24 January 2003, just a few days before the invasion of Iraq. It is possible that they may have obtained some relaxation in the laws on exporting ancient artefacts from Iraq. Fortunately, any such manoeuvrings will have been thwarted by the special resolution that the United Nations security council adopted on 22 May 2003, which obliges all countries to return to Iraq any artefacts that were stolen after 1990 and forbids all trade in them. This was the first time that the international community had successfully come together to combat the illegal trade in cultural goods.

Since 1954 Unesco has had one weapon against the trade, the Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. But this applies only to war zones. An additional protocol forbids the export of cultural goods from an occupied territory, and requires that any goods that are exported be returned. So far, 105 states have ratified these documents; the US and Britain are not among them.
The US administration has tried to paint the looting as the act of Iraqis or other Arab vandals and hooligans. However, this ignores the fact that the markets for these valuables are primarily among the wealthy elites of the West, including the United States (as the implications against the ACCP illustrates).

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