For many of us, it was the first time we ever heard of the Taliban: in mid-2001, the ancient sandstone buddhas of Bamiyan were blown to pieces, a harbinger of a barbarism that was to become all too familiar in months and years to come, far beyond Afghanistan itself. In conflicts of identity, cultural heritage was destined to be one of the first casualties.
Today, the threat to the world's heritage is even worse. From Aleppo to Palmyra, the destruction of cultural sites in Syria is unprecedented. Over the last few years, with terror groups in search of varied and steady sources of income, a prospering international market in stolen cultural artefacts has developed, linking organised crime, money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities across the world. In 2016, for instance, two Syrian friezes of dubious, possibly terrorist origins were seized at an airport in France. ISIS in particular has emerged as a key player, creating systematic and increasingly professional trading networks to make sure that, after they have served its political agenda and self-image, remnants of cultural ruin can also support the organisation’s livelihood.
To safeguard our shared cultural heritage and disrupt terrorism at the source, we need to tackle the illicit trade in cultural goods. The EU has a strong hand to do so: our well-established trade policy lays out rules and standards for everything that comes into the European Union. We are intent on using those rules and structures to make them better protect cultural heritage.
Since the start of the current wave of destruction across Iraq and Syria, and after a call to action by the United Nations in March last year, a number of countries have taken targeted measures to prohibit the import of cultural artefacts from the Middle East. What is missing is a broader and more widely shared effort. There are as of yet no EU-wide rules on the import of cultural goods from all countries outside Europe.
But that is about to change. The international trade committee of the European Parliament has just reached an agreement about new rules that seek to regulate the import of cultural goods into Europe. For a start, tackling illicit trade demands a common definition of what exactly cultural goods are, identify the goods most at risk and make sure importers take the necessary steps to check the origin of anything they hold. For the most treasured cultural goods, they would need to provide a license before sales can take place. For less valuable artefacts an affidavit on their provenance would suffice, making sure the system is proportionate as well as solid. By building on existing trade practices, the system put forward would prevent the import and storage in Europe of goods illegally exported from countries not only in the Middle East, but in Asia, South America and Africa as well.
The European trade agenda is strongly grounded on values. That means for us, trade is a way to export not just goods and services but also values. Not only by setting high standards with new trade agreements and cooperation in multilateral fora such as the World Trade Organisation, but also by limiting the import of things that undermine those values, such as torture goods and conflict minerals. As the conflict in Middle East drags on, in part fuelled by trade in invaluable and irreplaceable cultural goods, we need to do what we can to put a stop to that.
In 2018, the European year of cultural heritage, it is a powerful sign of our commitment to the world’s material heritage, as well as the immaterial values it symbolises.