Market of mass destruction: the policy omnishambles

I have been prompted to start this blog by the omnishambles of international public policy as it struggles but fails to achieve some kind of grip on the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Since 1990, a series of international, proxy and civil wars together with associated episodes of civil disturbance throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have triggered wave after wave of damaging attacks on cultural heritage. Cultural sites have been ruined for motives or pretexts of cultural cleansing and iconoclasm, damaged deliberately or accidentally by the actions of armed forces, or simply overwhelmed by the more peaceful though still destructive processes of urban expansion and agricultural improvement. Through all of this, however, a major cause of damage has been and continues to be the looting of archaeological and cultural sites to feed the illicit trade in cultural objects. Certainly, sitting here in the United Kingdom, it looks to be the most regrettable cause of damage, as it is the most preventable one. The trade exists to feed the collecting mania of destination countries far removed from the MENA region itself, and thus within easier reach of policy countermeasures. Or so it would seem. As the cultural heritage of country after country has fallen victim to looting and illicit trade, however, the international community has looked on despairingly but with little to offer in the way of effective amelioration. The looting and trade continues, seemingly unabated.

The shambolic nature of policy is reflected in the confusing terminology used to describe initiatives aimed at preventing damage. Sometimes it looks as though policy-makers do not have access to a dictionary. In October 2015, for example, the UK government announced a ‘New scheme to protect cultural sites from destruction’. Notice the headline use of the word ‘protect’. Protection was promised against the ‘destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists’. The scheme in question is the Iraqi Emergency Heritage Management Project. £3 million was granted to the British Museum to ‘create a team of local experts to assess, document and stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and help begin the process of reconstruction and preservation of some of the world’s most precious cultural artefacts’. So, despite headlining the need for protection, in reality the project has nothing to do with protection. It is all about documentation and reconstruction, things that are needed when protection has failed. Nothing wrong with that in principle, it is nice to see some money going to support initiatives aimed at restoring damaged cultural sites, but it is hardly protection, so why headline it as such? And furthermore, having discounted the protective agency of documentation and reconstruction, what exactly is being done to protect sites?

And just in case readers in the United States are feeling smug, something similar has been going on there. Between August 2014 and September 2015 the US Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) secured $1.5 million of federal funding for what is now called Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI). The stated aim of ASOR CHI is to implement ‘cultural property protection’ by: (1) documenting damage; (2) promoting global awareness; and (3) planning emergency and post-war responses. Again, the headline is ‘protection’, but the reality is more about documentation and reconstruction. Most of ASOR CHI’s operational effort is directed towards producing weekly reports of damage caused to cultural heritage in Syria and north Iraq. There is a real need for this kind of work, and the reports comprise a singular resource of undoubted value. But again, it is not protection.

ASOR CHI has produced a nice infographic describing its work. At one point, the infographic states that ‘Priceless artifacts have been looted & sold on the black market’. Quite. Probably sold on the not-so-black and nearly-white markets too. It is a pity then that ASOR CHI is not tackling the black market head on, by designing and implementing strategies aimed at reducing the demand for looted objects or interrupting their flow to destination countries. Preventing the illicit trade would be a sure route to protecting cultural sites, and yet it is a route not followed. Perhaps it is time that it was. Prevention offers protection in a way that documentation and reconstruction do not.