FLORENCE, ITALY - During their first-ever formal meeting, culture ministers representing Group of Seven industrialized nations on Thursday decried the looting and trafficking of cultural treasures by terror groups while experts acknowledged that objects believed looted by extremists are starting to surface in the marketplace.
The topic was on the table both during technical sessions by experts and law enforcement and during the afternoon meeting of G-7 cultural ministers and top officials. The gathering in Florence came a week after the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution co-authored by Italy and France warning that the destruction of cultural treasures may constitute war crimes.
Now, the discussion is turning not just to the destruction of cultural treasures, as seen in Syria and Afghanistan, but also to their trafficking as a source of funding to support the activities of extremist groups.
Heritage sites included
U.S. Ambassador Bruce Wharton, acting undersecretary for public diplomacy, told reporters that the ministers discussed the grave risk posed by “looting and trafficking at the hands of terrorist organizations and criminal networks.”
He cited the pillaging of heritage sites in Timbuktu in Mali, Palmyra in Syria and the Mosul museum in Iraq, which experts are just beginning to assess after 2 years being under control of Islamic State group extremists.
“Looting, trafficking and the illicit sale of cultural heritage objects have helped ISIS-Daesh finance its operations, along with trafficking in drugs, weapons and people,” Wharton said.
German Minister of State Maria Boehmer said “terrorism feeds on illegal trafficking of cultural treasures” and applauded moves by the International Criminal Court to make “the targeted destruction of cultural property a war crime.”
“'The barbaric destruction by terrorist groups is targeting people's identity,” she said.
Details are few
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Director Ray Villanueva said developments in identifying artifacts looted by extremists “are very fresh ... happening as we speak.” Villanueva said providing details, including of the countries of origin of looted objects, could compromise the ongoing investigations.
“However, I can tell you in general that [through the] internet [and] art dealers we are seeing artifacts coming up from different places,” Villanueva said, adding that the public, museums and art dealers were key to providing law enforcement with information.
Milan lawyer Manlio Frigo, who represents museums and art dealers, acknowledged that not all the trafficking in war zones was at the hands of extremists. Refugees crossing the border from Syria have been seen with plastic bags containing artifacts, Frigo said.
Looting for profit
Director-General Irina Bokova of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said there is plenty of evidence that extremists are looting for profit.
A group of partners that includes Interpol and the world customs organization are creating a common database and sharing information in a bid to recover the treasures, Bokova said.
“Every single day something happens somewhere that testifies to the fact that it is a systematic, I would say, looting of sites to engage with the illicit trafficking,” she said.