Destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria – measures to halt the illicit trafficking of cultural objects

Published under: Solberg's Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Joint appeal by Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende and Minister of Culture Torhild Widvey

The current wave of looting and smuggling of antiquities and historical material in the region in and around Iraq and Syria is very serious. We urge Norwegian experts, collectors and business enterprises such as art dealers, antiques dealers and museums to exercise due diligence. We refer to the provisions in Norwegian legislation that regulate the import of and trade in antiques and cultural objects that may originate from these areas.

The current wave of looting and smuggling of antiquities and historical material in the region in and around Iraq and Syria is very serious. We urge Norwegian experts, collectors and business enterprises such as art dealers, antiques dealers and museums to exercise due diligence. We refer to the provisions in Norwegian legislation that regulate the import of and trade in antiques and cultural objects that may originate from these areas.  

We have been horrified by the wanton destruction of ancient cultural treasures in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks. 

The ancient sites that are now being systematically destroyed have been identified by Unesco as some of the world’s most important cultural heritage sites. 

The destruction of cultural heritage that is taking place is dramatic, not just for the local population in the areas concerned, but for the whole of humanity. 

Such actions are considered to be war crimes.  

Historical sites and monuments are being destroyed, while smaller cultural objects are being sold on the illegal market to fund and support the activities of extremist groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaida. 

Irreplaceable cultural artefacts and objects of unique historical significance are being stolen from museums and libraries or looted from archaeological digs before being smuggled across borders for sale in Europe and elsewhere. 

On 12 February, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that obliges all member states to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in cultural property illegally removed from Iraq and Syria and to prevent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria from generating income from this trade to continue their heinous crimes and terrorist attacks against the people of the region and the international community as a whole. 

The UN Security Council has called for a common effort by Governments and institutions of all member states to counter these acts of barbarism.

National measures to curb the illicit trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property can help to limit the extremist groups’ ability to finance terrorist activities and the procurement of weapons.

Norway has a general prohibition on imports of and trade in cultural objects that have been unlawfully exported from other countries, and this also applies to objects from Iraq and Syria. In addition, the Government has recently provided financial support for Unesco’s Emergency Response Action Plan to safeguard Iraqi heritage in order to prevent illicit trade in cultural objects. 

In order for the counter measures to have the intended effect, it is of the utmost importance that experts in the field and the public in general support the measures that have been introduced to stop the illicit trade. 

All affected actors, potential buyers and relevant authorities are therefore urged to exercise due diligence when dealing with objects that may originate from Syria or Iraq. 

This applies to experts and researchers, collectors and enterprises such as art dealers, antiques dealers and museums, and public bodies. 

In addition, the public in general is urged to exercise due diligence when buying cultural objects on the internet, at auctions or on tourist visits to other countries. If there is any reason to suspect that a cultural object may have been illicitly imported, the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime (Økokrim) should be contacted. 

All those who procure cultural objects in a personal capacity or in the context of work are urged to comply with the obligations set out in the legislation and norms listed below, including when buying items over the internet.