Protection of Cultural Heritage

30th November 2015

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, today joined members of both Houses of Parliament in vowing to stop London’s art market being used by terrorists to sell trafficked antiquities. The parliamentarians also backed the idea of London becoming a safe haven for works of art that have been looted from war zones and cannot yet be safely be returned.

They were speaking at the launch of a new All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage which will be led by David Burrowes, MP for Enfield Southgate and Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, who is a distinguished archaeologist and Cambridge University professor.

The APPG will raise awareness of the illegal sale of looted antiquities which have been identified by the UN Security Council as a major source of funding for terrorists. It will also work for police and customs to be given the necessary resources to combat art trafficking, and where necessary for changes in the law.

The group’s creation follows David Cameron’s promise to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Times of War, a treaty designed to prevent looting. The prime minister has also pledged to implement the EU Directive on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State.

Today’s event and the work of the APPG are being supported by Walk of Truth, an NGO which aims to involve ordinary people in global efforts to protect cultural heritage from violence and war. Walk of Truth is launching a project called Cultural Crime Watchers Worldwide, which will empower people to share tips about trafficked  art anonymously.

At the meeting the Mayor called for the APPG to work with City Hall, police and experts, to draw up an Action Plan for London to cover:

  • Proactive inter-city discussions with cities under cultural threat
  • The policing response, drawing on the work of the MPS Art and Antiquities Unit
  • Raising awareness in civil society
  • Haven of disputed works of art/ temporary storage
  • Work with London’s auction houses and legitimate traders
  • Combatting the black market and antiquities trafficking

Mr Johnson said: "Daesh and other terrorist organisations are hell bent on committing appalling acts of terrorism and murder around the world. In addition they seek to destroy democracy and obliterate history. That’s why they see the destruction and looting of priceless antiquities and artefacts, in part to fund their violent activities, as central to their warped ideology of hate. And that’s why City Hall is working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the police, art dealers, auction houses and others both here and overseas in a bid to preserve and protect the world’s cultural heritage. London stands ready to provide a safe haven for the temporary storage of these irreplaceable artefacts until they can be returned to their home countries."

Tasoula Hadjitofi founder of Walk of Truth said: "After this month's horrific events in Paris, it is more obvious than ever that we face a new kind of threat from groups which are hostile to everything that we call civilization.  Terrorists in Syria and Iraq and other places are looting antiquities and using the proceeds to fund their lethal activities.  These cultural treasures are then being sold in cities like London. The only way to stop this deadly trade is to ask ordinary people, including the victims of war, to play their part in identifying trafficked antiquities. That is why I established Walk of Truth, an NGO which invites citizens of all countries to help protect cultural heritage from violence and crime. Our new project, Culture Crime Watchers Worldwide, will empower people to share information about trafficked art objects, anonymously if need be. With every passing day this task becomes more important."

Claire Hutcheon of the Art and Antiquities Unit at Scotland Yard warmly welcomed the Cultural Crime Watchers initiative: “There is a need for communities across the globe to share information relating to cultural property on without the fear of reprisals. CCWW will enable that to happen.”

Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said in a message to today’s meeting: “In Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Mali, the world is witnessing horrific attacks against culture, both tangible and intangible.  On a daily basis we receive reports of the intentional destruction of irreplaceable landmarks, and the highly organized looting and illegal trafficking of cultural property. Such brutal and systematic destruction and “cultural cleansing” are unprecedented in recent history. I regard these attacks on culture as war crimes.”

David Burrowes, Member of Parliament and Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage said: “I welcome the Mayor's call for an action plan for London to protect cultural heritage. We now must get a firm timetable for the legislation to implement the Hague Convention and protocols. The endorsement of the Walk of Truth's cultural crime watchers worldwide by the Mayor, Police and key stakeholders must now be taken forward. London is well placed to be a protector of stolen cultural heritage and our APPG will do what we can to help deliver”.

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