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17th Feb 2019

EU to crack down on art-funded terrorism

  • Palmyra, Syria. The Islamic State group allows and organises lootings to fund its terror activities. (Photo: Juan Llanos)

The European Commission has presented measures to crack down on the traffic of cultural goods as part of an effort to cut funding to terrorist groups.

"Terrorists are well and truly artwork traffickers," EU tax commissioner Pierre Moscovici said at a press conference on Thursday (13 July).

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Referring to the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, he said that terrorists were waging an "ideological struggle" when destroying monuments, but that they were also "shrewd businessmen".

"Trafficking is part of their business model," he said, adding that selling stolen art goods "funds criminal activities, including attacks on European soil."

He insisted that the EU "absolutely needs a common systematic response."

The commission proposed to introduce a new common EU definition for cultural goods that will apply to objects such as archaeological finds, ancient scrolls, remains of historical monuments or artworks that are at least 250 years old.

Goods would fall under two categories: archaeological objects, parts of monuments and ancient manuscripts and books; and other goods such as artwork, collections, and antiques.

A new licensing system would be created for the first category, and importers would have to get an authorisation from "competent authorities in the EU".

For the second category, importers would be certified, through a "signed standard statement," which shows that the goods have been exported legally from the country they come from. European customs would have the power to seize and retain goods when no proof could be presented.

That means that it would be up to the dealers to prove that the goods were legally traded, rather than on authorities to prove that they were illegal.

But for France Desmarais, from the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the proposal remained unclear.

She told EUobserver that the effectiveness of the plan would depend on whether authorities asked for legal proof on the origin of the goods, or just accepted a statement based on dealers' good faith.

She added that ensuring the goods' traceability would also depend on whether the Object ID - the international identification and registration document that dealers will have to hand in along with their statement - would be put in a database that could be checked across the EU.

She explained that licit provenance of goods "is difficult to prove because we have had decades of fabricated provenance to facilitate import and sales"

"Now we are faced with a lot of fake provenance documentation and thus need to establish the 'real' ownership history of many antiquities," she said.

The commission wants the measures to enter into force in 2019, but they will have to be adopted by member states and by the European Parliament.

The proposal follows calls from the UN to stop illicit trade of cultural goods from Iraq and Syria.

Last week, leaders at the G20 summit also called on all countries to "dismantle" connections between looting and smuggling of antiquities and terror groups.

So far, only Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands have introduced legislation to combat trafficking.

The commission considers the "patchwork of rules" among EU states to favour so-called "port-shopping" - using weaker points of entry, to bring stolen goods into the EU.

According to the EU executive, art trafficking - with a financial value €2.5 - €5 billion each year - now comes just behind arms and drugs trafficking.

The commission also said some estimates suggest that 80 to 90 percent of sales of antiquities are from illicit origins. But the part of illicit trade linked to terror groups is difficult to evaluate.

"We don't know," ICOM's Desmarais told EUobserver. "But we have proof that IS is involved in looting."

She said IS was allowing and sometimes organising looting on cultural sites in Syria and Iraq. The terror group even takes a 20-percent tax from looters to allow them to take archaeological treasures.

"You don't need to sell many pieces to fund attacks," Desmarais pointed out.

She said that ICOM, which represents museum professionals from 119 countries, "welcomes" the commission's initiative, even if "it was about time" that the EU executive did something.

"Terrorism systematised looting and illicit trade that has existed for long a time," she said. But "until now, the threat was viewed as a cultural problem, rather than as a criminal problem."

She noted that IS and the terror attacks in Europe provided "political momentum" to the fight against cultural goods trafficking in general, which also affects Latin America, Africa or South-East Asia.

Moscovici said that the proposed measures would help the EU's 120,000 custom officers, by giving them "legal security" when controlling cultural goods entering the EU.

Desmarais insisted that the criteria to define the categories of goods should be "backed by science and evidence" and include goods that "come from a region in conflict or that has known instability or insecurity … [which are] protected by legislation … [which are] in demand on the art market."

She also pointed out that the 250-years limit - which the commission used because it is used by the art market and the US - would exclude many cultural goods from protection.

She said, however, that she accepted the commission's proposal because she was "a realist".

"I prefer something that exists and is being implemented rather than an ideal than is not ratified," she said.

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