Protecting Cultural Objects

The Response of the International Community (1/2)
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The Response of the International Community
During the twentieth century the belief that the protection of cultural property is cause for international concern and requires international cooperation has met with increasing acceptance. At the end of World War II, there was little international law relating specifically to cultural heritage. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), the first significant step taken to remedy this situation, remains to this day one of the most important pieces of international legislation for the protection of cultural objects. The preamble to the Convention asserts that "damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world,"27 that "the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and that it is important that this heritage should receive international protection."28 Article 4(3) of the Convention requires those countries bound by it to "undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism against, cultural property."29

The next major step was the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. When UNESCO was founded in 1946, its constitution gave it the mandate to work to protect the world's cultural heritage. One way in which it was to do this was by recommending the necessary international conventions. The 1970 Convention was adopted in response to a growing "concern that the high demand for cultural objects in the art market had generated rampant pillaging of archaeological and ethnological materials, particularly in countries with few resources to protect their cultural heritage."30 Parties to the Convention agree to prohibit the import of, and to recover and return to the source nation, any "cultural property stolen from a museum or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution in another State Party to this Convention. . .provided that such property is documented as pertaining to the inventory of that institution."31

In 1975 the member states of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE)32 signed the Helsinki Accord, one of the objectives of which was "to examine jointly questions of expanding and improving exchanges of information in the various fields of culture. . .as well as the conservation and restoration of cultural property."33

In the last five years, the international community has continued to respond to the growing threat to cultural objects. In 1991, the CSCE organized the Cracow Symposium on the Cultural Heritage, at which it was resolved that "participating States will co-operate in preventing the illegal circulation of cultural objects." One year later, an International Workshop on the Protection of Artistic and Cultural Patrimony was held in Courmayeur, Italy. The workshop, organized in cooperation with the UNESCO Division of Cultural Patrimony and the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch of the United Nations (UNOV), heard reports which provided further evidence of the magnitude of the threats to cultural objects internationally. Delegates to the Courmayeur conference agreed to thirteen resolutions, the first of which was that:

Governments should make a concerted effort, on the occasion of the forty-seventh session of the General Assembly of the United Nations and of the next General Conference of UNESCO, to obtain the adoption of resolutions strongly urging Member States to initiate multilateral and bilateral negotiations aimed at concluding treaties for the protection of the cultural property of nations. The same resolutions should also urge Governments to upgrade, in their crime prevention programmes, the importance of protecting the cultural property of nations, granting top priority to these activities.34

In the framework of preparing for the internal market, the European Community issued a Council Regulation and a Council Directive concerning the movement of cultural objects. The Regulation on the Export of Cultural Goods35 enforces source-nation export controls at the Community's external borders, while the Directive on the Return of Cultural Objects Unlawfully Removed from the Territory of a Member State36 enforces source nation export controls within the European Community.

In November 1993, the Council of Europe organized an intergovernmental meeting in Prague on "The Situation of the Moveable Heritage in Central and Eastern European Countries". The participants at this meeting recognized

That the conservation and protection of the movable cultural heritage is currently amongst the worst problems facing central and eastern countries and agree that such problems can be solved through effective international co-operation in Europe within the framework of the Council of Europe, and in close cooperation with other international bodies, in particular UNESCO, the EUROPEAN UNION and INTERPOL.37

In the same month the Law Ministers of the Commonwealth, meeting in Mauritius, agreed to a scheme for the protection of the "Material Cultural Heritage" of member states. The Mauritius Scheme is not an internationally binding obligation, but rather provides a framework in intra-Commonwealth legal relations. The provisions of the scheme "govern the return by one Commonwealth country of an item of cultural heritage found within its jurisdiction following export from another Commonwealth country contrary to its laws."38

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