'Dignity itself': Saving world heritage sites from 'cultural cleansing' won't be easy

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'Dignity itself': Saving world heritage sites from 'cultural cleansing' won't be easy

This week in the public square that has come to symbolize the heart of the Renaissance, Florence's Piazza della Signoria, a freestanding arch appeared at the edge of the L-shaped square overnight.

With the imposing, crenellated Palazzo Vecchio, now City Hall, and the giant marble copy of Michelangelo's David looming nearby, the arch appeared small and fragile.

Curious Florentines and visitors alike paused to gaze at it before reading the information plaque that explained it was a precise replica of the Monumental Arch of Palmyra, Syria, dating back to ancient-Roman times.

It is the same arch destroyed by ISIS in 2015 in an act that can only be described as iconoclastic idiocy.

Florence is the fourth stop of the replica monument, which has stood in New York's Times Square, London's Trafalgar Square and Dubai. It was mounted in the Tuscan city earlier this week, just before world leaders gathered here for the first-ever Culture G7.

The goal of that encounter — to come up with new global strategies to prevent the destruction, looting and trafficking of cultural treasures by extremist organizations and others — and the symbolism of the arch in Piazza della Signoria, bursting with monuments that due to care and restoration, have survived for centuries in proud resplendence, could not merge more powerfully.

"Because of the important role of heritage to Italy," said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who initiated and hosted the meeting, "Italy has a leadership role in matters of culture.

"We want to translate this strength into global action by putting the idea of cultural diplomacy onto countries' agenda."

To that end, the cultural ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. signed a joint declaration, calling for countries to take "strong and effective measures" to fight the looting and trafficking of cultural property, especially in areas of conflict, where little has been done so far.

Franceschini first appealed for the creation of a UN peacekeeping force to protect the world's heritage sites two years ago, following not just the destruction of the Arch of Palmyra, but also attacks on:

- The Mosul museum in Iraq.

- The ancient Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud, south of Mosul.

- Iraq's Hatra, an ancient fortress city that the Roman empire repeatedly failed to conquer.

- More recently, shrines at Timbuktu in Mali.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, condemned the acts as "cultural cleansing," saying they were akin to war crimes.

"We have an organization like UNESCO to help preserve monuments" in times of peace, said Franceschini ahead of the meeting. What the world needs now, he added, is "the UN to intervene during peacekeeping missions with a unit that focuses on protection of monuments while the conflict is actually going on, rather than coming in after" when it is often too late.

Equally pressing

While the idea of rapid-response UN unit of "blue helmets of culture," as they were dubbed, has gained a considerable boost with this week's G7, it remains unclear how it will be implemented.

Just as pressing is how to halt the illegal trafficking of the hundreds of artifacts and cultural treasures stolen in times of war.

While archeologists have debated how much these stolen treasures are actually funding groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, most agree that unless there are strong enough legal measures to block the demand, the looting will continue.

"I think the most urgent issue is the number of antiquities getting on the black market and the fact that the current international measures are not adequate to combat it," Alesia Koush, Florence-based art historian and expert in illicit art markets, said in an interview.

While she applauds the culture ministers' pledge to work towards protecting monuments and artifacts in times of war, Koush said that unless national laws regarding the sale of artifacts are radically changed, the flourishing black market trade of will continue unhindered.

"The issue of provenance is fundamental. Lots of antiquities are sold to private hands and when the transaction is private, it's very difficult to trace."

The problem is so widespread in Italy that it has its own Patrimony Police Unit to investigate the trafficking of such objects.

'Grey market'

Last year, the Italian government confirmed reports that the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta organized crime group was running an artifacts-for-arms ring between Italy and Libya.

Trying to prevent well-known items looted during conflict from disappearing into the black market is hard enough. What's even more elusive is what's known as the "grey market" — objects that are stolen that nobody knows about in the first place and that are then sold illegally.

"When we are talking about illicit trafficking, we are first of all talking about the archeological pieces that have been excavated illicitly. So they are not registered or on any inventory," Koush said.

Koush and others who study the illicit trade of heritage objects say that proof or "due diligence" needs to be shifted to those trying to sell or buy the object. In other words, for the dealer to be presumed guilty until he or she proves otherwise.

Paradigm shift

"All 'due diligence' means now is that law enforcement has to verify that it's not somewhere on the list [of stolen objects]," said Koush. "But if [the artifact] is taken from the earth, from underground, it's not going to be on any list. And that is the biggest problem with stopping illicit trafficking."

Koush said she hopes the G7 meeting will at least introduce a paradigm shift of how the world thinks about the stealing of artifacts, as a violation of cultural human rights.

"What is at stake is our common cultural heritage, our common dignity … and expressions of human genius. When we allow the sale of stolen culture, we allow the sale of our dignity itself."