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by Larry Schwartz

Adapted from Newberry Series Lecture at Dacor-Bacon House
Washington, D.C., July 13, 2018


Although the State Department has engaged for many years in cultural heritage and property issues, we have never tried to integrate them into our broader foreign policy framework, actively using them in diplomacy to strengthen partnerships and advancing our national security.  It is time for the U.S. to consider the adoption of a cultural heritage policy that can strengthen our diplomatic leadership, serve U.S. interests, and fit within today’s expectations that foreign engagements begin with unambiguous bilateral cooperation.

There have been many good people at work on these matters – both in governments and in the reputable private sector.  Recently, there have also been some good efforts to build interagency coordination initiatives in Washington that can bring together the various strands of interest and funding on cultural heritage.  Yet in the meantime, there is much we can do without hesitation and without requiring major new resources or legislation – and it is happening already.  U.S. diplomacy can embrace and most effectively build a cultural heritage policy by clearly assigning specific responsibilities to our public diplomacy field officers.

Foreign Policy and Heritage Protection

Many archaeologists and arts experts around the world have spoken out about the history and losses from purposeful destruction and global pillage of cultural heritage.  The past two decades have provided vivid examples, some helpfully provided on videotape by the villains themselves.

The provenance and transfer of cultural property is a complex and politically fraught activity – and different than other property issues.  Buildings have been falling down, or ripped down, as long as people have built them and art objects have been created, traded, stolen, treasured and destroyed just as long.  Many people value cultural heritage as a way of understanding and transferring the complex story of human civilizations to future generations.  Today, many governments are recognizing the importance of cultural and ethnological heritage for reasons of national pride and politics, or for economic benefits, such as in promoting tourism.

A global consensus seems to be building around the need to prevent systematic looting for political or economic benefit, including by terrorist groups and criminal syndicates, and a desire to manage transparent, legal markets for heritage.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and South Asia, widespread instability and national security challenges to the United States and our partners has resulted from rapid population growth in countries run by failing governments and slow growth economies.  The United States has worked very hard and spent a great deal of money to help strengthen the rule of law around the world, knowing as we do that terrorist and criminal enterprises grow and prosper where governments cannot provide basic law enforcement and critical services.

The time has come for the United States to engage with our partners to end the trafficking of antiquities — especially from conflict regions, where we have seen evidence that terrorists and criminals are engaged in fundraising.  We must do this out of our national security interests, asking partner nations to make real and substantial contributions to the resolution of these challenges.  At the same time, our diplomacy can be a force for transparency for open, legal art markets – ensuring that American collectors and institutions, who make up more than 40% of the world’s antiquities market, are not acquiring stolen property and being duped into financially supporting terrorist or other illegal activities.

Cultural Heritage:  Wounded Pride

In most countries, cultural heritage is a source of national pride and a symbol of a nation’s values and past achievements and is especially important among elites.  At the same time, it is often poorly funded.  So today, great ancient societies remain abandoned to the elements in advanced states of disrepair – and sadly, many are looted for treasures as well as for souvenirs.

At the same time, individuals or institutions all over the world collect cultural heritage pieces for educational display or research purposes; other collectors are arts traders, buying and selling antiquities, much like other businesses.  The age-old process of trading antiquities – or systematically exploiting ancient tombs and cities — has endowed not only the homes of individual collectors but also some of the great museums, universities and cultural institutions of the West.  While in recent years the largest art dealers and institutions have made great efforts to assure the provenance of pieces they acquire, it is possible to see ample evidence through casual online browsing that the trade in antiquities of questionable legality is widespread.

Given America’s status as the largest destination for archaeological and ethnological objects from around the world, the discovery of recently stolen or illegally exported artifacts in our country not only makes Americans and our institutions accessories to crimes — possessing stolen property — but also threatens our relations with other countries.

We can actually do something about this.  The State Department has had, but rarely used, the authority to negotiate bilateral Cultural Property Agreements with other countries for over 30 years  Moreover, the State Department’s public diplomacy corps has capable Foreign Service officers at every overseas mission assigned to liaise with leading cultural institutions and ministries.  What is missing is sustained leadership and an affirmative policy that engages global partners in a common effort to curb illegal trafficking in cultural heritage, especially in conflict regions.  Effective diplomacy would draw America’s extraordinary scholarly community, globally-recognized institutions and many reputable arts dealers into a collaborative relationship, advancing security interests and strengthening legal markets.  By leaning forward, we can enhance America’s image and simultaneously set a context of trust for resolving other bilateral matters.

Diplomatic Controversies and Cultural Property
The modern era of U.S. diplomatic engagement around cultural heritage dates back to World War II and the subsequent founding of the U.N. system.  Nazi Germany’s systematic looting of Europe’s art treasures, and particularly the confiscated property of Jewish families is well known.  Extraordinary and detail-conscious research efforts continue to this very day to resolve World War II era property restitution issues – including cultural treasures stolen from institutions or from private residences.

The settlement of some of these property issues sparked broader debates within the international community about the history of cultural theft, trade and archeological research.  Greece has long demanded that the British Museum return the Athens Parthenon façade, known as the Elgin Marbles.  Egypt wants the return of the Rosetta Stone, taken by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and later transferred to the British Museum.  An Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti identified in 1912 by a German archaeological team was taken out of the country and is now in Berlin’s Neues Museum.  There are many other famous cases as well as little-known ones; cultural artifacts from countries around the world are regularly acquired or displayed by American institutions; and foreign government victims are forced to press for their return via complex and expensive legal action in the United States.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention

During the 1960s, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) observed a surge of thefts of cultural property from museums and archaeological sites in developing countries. It reported an accelerating trend of stolen property passing through art markets in Europe and the United States to museums or private collectors.  With pressure from its member states in the developing world participating countries in the 16th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1970 adopted the awkwardly entitled “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.”  The Convention established, for the first time, an international framework of cooperation aimed to reduce incentives to pillage archaeological and ethnological material through bilateral agreements among its signatories.

The U.S. Senate adopted the UNESCO Convention in 1972, but it took over a decade for the Congress to pass an implementing law governing future U.S. imports.  The late Senators Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) and Max Baucus (D-MT), with bipartisan support, managed to move the “U.S. Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act” (PL 97-446) through to passage in January 1983, incorporated as a tariff measure in an omnibus bill.

Subsequent to the Act, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) was delegated the authority to negotiate bilateral agreements on importation of cultural property or to authorize emergency restrictions, with advice from a presidentially-appointed Cultural Property Advisory Committee.  The State Department established procedures for the adoption of these bilateral Cultural Property Agreements — legally designated Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that, unlike treaties, do not require Senate ratification.

The law gave us a tool to begin curbing the markets in illegal antiquities.  These bilateral MOUs put the burden of proof on the exporters of antiquities to the United States to show U.S. authorities that they had valid proof of legal sale from the country of origin.  Once agreements are in place, the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection (CPB) is authorized to enforce import restrictions.  Given the massive international trade flows between the United States and much of the world, it is remarkable that U.S. customs officers have been able to identify and impound illegal antiquities passing through U.S. ports of entry.  Yet with cooperation between prosecutors, leading arts houses, institutions and academics, they have had some remarkable successes.

In addition, this requirement can have substantial impact overseas.  For example, when the U.S. and Cambodia signed an MOU in 2003 to restrict the importation of cultural property not certified by authorities, the value of cultural property offered on world markets collapsed, substantially reducing the incentive to plunder

A Disappointing Track Record

There are 137 state signatories to the UNESCO convention.  To date, the State Department has approved 18 bilateral Cultural Property Agreements — that is, 18 agreements in the 35 years since our implementing law was adopted.

This poor track record reflects, in part, the complex U.S. process set up to assure that agreements are thoroughly vetted by art market interests in the United States, but most of all it reflects the lack of a U.S. cultural heritage policy.  The small staff of the ECA Bureau’s Cultural Heritage Center has not been overwhelmed by demands from signatory governments for bilateral Agreements with the United States to protect their cultural and ethnological heritage, but the issue has continued to create difficulties for the United States and our partners.  It may be that many countries do not see the need to protect cultural and ethnological artifacts from sales on international art markets, but it has become clear that action is urgently needed when societies collapse.

9/11 Changed Everything

As with nearly every other aspect of our national security policy, 2001 was a major turning point in our approach to cultural heritage diplomacy, beginning with the purposeful destruction of cultural heritage as a political statement.  The long and sad history of destructions and desecrations borne of religious conflict are familiar to students of global history and cultures.  Although hardly confined to the Middle East, the destructions in recent years associated with Islamist violent extremists have been particularly shocking because they have seemed so irrationally purposeless.

In a March, 2001 speech attacking non-Islamic religions in Muslim lands, the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar pointed to massive 4th and 5th–century monumental Buddha cliff carvings in Bamiyan, Afghanistan as idols and an affront to Islam.  In a public showing of extreme intolerance, the Buddhas were publicly destroyed.  Although international opinion strongly condemned their actions, the Taliban were thrilled by the notoriety and told followers that the outcry was evidence of the general Western disrespect for the principles of Islam.

Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan before and after destruction. Source: Khan Academy

But Afghans did not all share the Taliban hatred for non-Islamic cultures.  After the Taliban were driven from government, the curators of Afghanistan’s National Museum brought newly-elected President Karzai a cache of Bactrian-era gold artifacts dating from the 1st century BCE that they had kept hidden for years during the Taliban reign.  In cooperation with the National Geographic, these artifacts toured Europe and the United States, raising funds to build a new secure exhibit space in Kabul.

U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation – a High Water Mark

Shock at the Taliban’s political iconoclasm gave impetus to a new State Department program that came to be known as the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).  As America was on the cusp of war, the prescient implementing legislation stated that “Cultural preservation offers an opportunity to show a different American face to other countries, one that is non-commercial, non-political, and non-military.  By taking a leading role in efforts to preserve cultural heritage, we show our respect for other cultures by protecting their traditions.”  The program was lodged in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Cultural Heritage Center—the same unit responsible for bilateral Cultural Property Agreements.

According to the Center’s web site, which has not been updated, the Ambassadors Fund awarded 55 grants for projects to preserve cultural heritage in 46 developing countries in 2014.  The site reports that since its creation, the Fund awarded $55 million for more than 870 projects in 125 countries helping to preserve cultural sites, cultural objects, and forms of traditional cultural expression.  I am sure that the number is higher by now.  For many of us in the field, these grants provided extraordinary opportunities for our Embassies to engage and support partner countries.

Recent years have not been so kind to the Ambassadors Fund as some in Congress came to see it as a distribution of largesse rather than a diplomatic tool; program funding has been drastically cut.  Our Embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been able to continue funding a number of projects from their own resources in the belief that American support for cultural heritage can underscore our partnership with the past and future of these nations.  While I truly hope this is true, I believe that we can make a stronger case for funding the Fund at modest levels if it becomes a part of an overall and articulated cultural heritage policy – one that focuses on program funding as a natural outgrowth of bilateral cooperation with nations who are also Cultural Property Agreement partners.

Other U.S. Programs

I cannot claim to have done an exhaustive review of U.S.-funded cultural heritage programs, but think it’s fair to say that these well-intentioned efforts have been based on the availability of discretionary resources and not been coordinated efforts.  USAID, the U.S.-supported independent Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORCs) and Smithsonian Institution have also contributed to cultural heritage protection. The Cultural Heritage Center has had an ongoing agreement with the Smithsonian since 2009 to provide training for customs and other officials about laws, international agreements, and detention and repatriation procedures, as well as the identification, documentation, and handling of archaeological and ethnographic artifacts.

In Egypt, USAID has provided support valued at over $100 million since 1995 through 70 major conservation projects with very impressive results.  USAID has also completed several large-scale engineering projects around the country to protect some of Egypt’s greatest cultural treasures from rising groundwater, including the Karnak and Luxor Temples, Kom Ombo and others in Upper Egypt, the neighborhoods of Coptic Cairo and, most famous of all, the Sphinx and Giza Plateau – all protected from serious damage by the American people.  American archeologists and scholars associated with the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) have conducted research into the history and protection of Egyptian antiquities for 70 years.  Through the other research centers, American scholars have been doing similar work in many other countries around the world.  USAID has done other work across the region – in some cases as part of economic development strategies – in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.

Iraq and Syria:  Terrorism and Heritage

During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, looting became a major concern when the National Museum of Iraq was ravaged under the eyes of U.S. troops.  Of course, Iraq holds a place of prominence in world history. As the birthplace of writing, the wheel, and countless other inventions, Iraq has been shaping human civilization for 10,000 years.  The National Museum contained – and still contains — precious relics from the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Persian civilizations.  In the chaos of the war, some saw a unique opportunity for profit.   Despite international efforts, thousands of stolen artifacts are still believed to be missing.

The United States was widely criticized for not properly securing the Museum and other cultural sites and has therefore, since 2003, spent over $33 million to refurbish and repair the Museum and to train Iraqi staff to maintain and repair historic sites around the country.  Defense Department funds distributed by field commanders also contributed to this effort.  As part of that effort, in 2008, Congress enacted emergency legislation to ban the importation of illegally exported artifacts from Iraq into the United States.  This diplomatic precedent by Congress effectively recognized that the United States has an interest in protecting our markets from illegally acquired ‘conflict’ antiquities.

The brutal so-called “Islamic State” terrorists who managed to paralyze and dominate Iraq in 2014 occupied Mosul and its museum as it was about to reopen after years of rebuilding.  In February 2015, after publicly burning books from Mosul libraries, ISIS released a video showing the destruction of artifacts in the museum and at the 2-3,000 year old archaeological site of Nimrud, claiming that the antiquities promoted idolatry.  Moreover, a May 2015 raid against ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf in Syria uncovered evidence that ISIS was selling artifacts to buyers who would put them up for sale in international markets – essentially as a fundraising device for their so-called “caliphate,” with receipts and permissions for excavation bearing the title of the ISIS Ministry of Antiquities  The hypocrisy of destroying ancient “idols” on one hand and selling them to foreigners as a source of revenue was lost on no one.

Documents captured by the U.S. military in May 2015 at the Syria-based headquarters of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf. Source: U.S. Department of Defense


For ISIS, destruction as a recruitment tool took priority:  in August, 2015, ISIS murdered Dr. Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old caretaker of the World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria and publicly destroyed some of the ancient city.

ISIS shocked the international community.  Their murder and displacement of Syrian and Iraqi citizens was our primary concern, of course, putting millions of people in grave danger and creating large refugee populations.  Yet from inside ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria came waves of reporting by brave cell phone-empowered individuals about the destruction of heritage and the looting taking place.

Moved by the international outcry over ISIS destruction in Iraq and Syria, and with the Syrian state in disarray, the Congress in 2016 enacted emergency legislation to block the importation of illegally acquired Syrian antiquities to the United States.  The State Department also began to take a serious interest in the relationship between terrorism and the destruction and trafficking of antiquities:

Beginning in 2014, the State Department commissioned the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) – a leading association of expert archeologists – to conduct monitoring, reporting and fact-finding on Syria and to engage in public outreach initiatives in the U.S. and at international cultural heritage events;

We sponsored a series of meetings at the Metropolitan Museum for three successive years during the opening week of the U.N. General Assembly sessions in late September that helped broadly publicize the damage being done by ISIS.  These included the distribution of ECA-supported “Red Lists” produced by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to alert customs officials to items in danger of being trafficked; and

We elevated the theft and destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq to the agenda of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.  Outstanding work was done by diplomats and finance ministry officials on the Financial Action Task Force to close off money moving to ISIS accounts from antiquities dealers.

Recent Cultural Diplomacy Across the Middle East and North Africa

Most of us at the State Department were well aware that these were only partial measures.  For us, the Iraq and Syria crises helped crystalize the need for a cultural heritage policy that would disrupt the trafficking in antiquities both by terrorists and by criminal syndicates.

At the 2016 “Culture Under Threat” Conference of Regional Antiquities Ministers in Amman, hosted by the Antiquities Coalition and Middle East Institute, it was clear that most of the Arab ministries charged with the protection of cultural heritage were underfunded, understaffed and unable to protect the region’s heritage sites.  Although the ministers were reluctant to place blame on individuals, it was clear that the current period of instability across much of the region has also offered opportunities to illegal antiquities thieves in addition to terrorists.

Egypt has suffered enormously from generations of cultural property curiosity and plunder, but the trend has vastly escalated since the Egyptian revolution of 2011.  Satellite photos clearly reveal the systematic destruction.

NASA photographs of illegal excavations in Egypt published by researchers at the University of Alabama. Source: University of Alabama

With the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry and Foreign Ministry now eager to execute an MOU with the United States, we were able to close the deal in few months.  Secretary of State Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry signed an MOU on November 30, 2016, the first between the United States and an Arab government.  My colleagues in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and I began to think about how we might engage other vulnerable countries across the region.

Since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, heritage-rich Libya has plunged into a period of civil warfare and instability.  As the Global Coalition began to squeeze its ISIS-held territory in Iraq, their fighters began migrating to Libya in an effort to establish another beachhead for the so-called “Caliphate.”  So we began work with the Antiquities Coalition and the Libyan government to begin protecting the country’s cultural sites.  Again, it took quite a bit of work, but with the leadership of American academic experts and the Antiquities Coalition we were able to assemble evidence needed to sign an emergency MOU with Libya in February of this year.

The movement to put in place bilateral agreements with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is gaining momentum.  Today, both Algeria and Morocco are in the final stages of bilateral MOU discussions with the State Department and we hope they will be able to complete the process this year.  The Jordanian government is compiling documentation to support its request for an MOU and technical discussions are underway for an agreement with Lebanon.  We still need to work with several other countries in the region, but we’ve made great strides in only a few years.

At the same time, we have been using other public diplomacy tools – exchanges and specialist visits, particularly – to build cooperation between U.S. experts and Antiquities Ministries across the region.  For example, following a terrible terrorist attack in 2015, we provided funds for the Bardo Museum in Tunis to partner with the Smithsonian on museum fundraising techniques.  We also helped the influential Qairawan Mosque in central Tunisia to begin digitizing its massive collection of medieval Arabic manuscripts.

Today, public diplomacy officers in the MENA region are engaging with antiquities ministries, museums and academics in both the U.S. and their host countries to build partnerships around common concerns in the protection of antiquities.  Targeted exchange programs or Fulbright scholarships are common public diplomacy tools being used to help strengthen ties.  In most cases, these are initiatives begun by our field officers, who are tapping into a deep well of good will for our country.  I’m also glad to report that other regions of the Department, notably the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) have also been engaged in cultural diplomacy programming – and I have reason to hope that the Department will be able to sign bilateral agreements with several countries in the next few years.

The Crisis in Yemen

The most serious current crisis – and gap in our efforts to protect antiquities in the MENA region — is taking place in Yemen.  For several years now, Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen, with support from al-Qaeda elements, have been battling to overthrow the internationally recognized Government of Yemen, causing untold damage and creating a humanitarian crisis with a threat of famine in what was already the region’s poorest country.  Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government are in exile, but their supporters are battling to regain control of the country, backed by the Saudi-led Coalition and the UAE.  The U.N. is working to mediate an end to the conflict, which has caused appalling loss of life and destruction.

Old City of Sanaa, YemenSource: Google Images.


As elsewhere, the theft of antiquities has become common in this ancient trading society.  Unfortunately, Yemen, in spite of its history, never became a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the U.S. implementing legislation, PL 97-446, which authorizes the negotiation of bilateral Cultural Property Agreements only with other States Parties to the Convention.

Yemen’s government has signaled a desire to accede to the 1970 UNESCO Convention and has provided the U.N. and the U.S. with lists of artifacts looted from the country’s museums.  Until that process is complete, the State Department has no legal mechanism to block the import of illegal antiquities to the U.S. market.  However, under a close reading of United Nations and U.S. emergency sanctions in place on Yemen, the Antiquities Coalition is arguing that our Treasury Department can unilaterally impose emergency sanctions on antiquities sales.  The Government of Yemen and the Antiquities Coalition have asked Treasury to take this emergency interim action, a freeze that will stay in place until a post-war bilateral agreement can be negotiated.


People will always be interested in learning about other cultures, and arts markets are legitimate ways for institutions and individuals to trade items for collections, adding to our cultural understanding and enjoyment.  However, it is in our national security interest to assure that these markets are more transparent and operate legally.

While we have made great progress by engaging countries in the Middle East and North Africa, we have a great deal to do in much of the rest of the world.  A consensus is growing around a need for a cultural heritage policy rooted firmly in the principles that govern our broad foreign policy.  First, we need to prevent terrorists and criminal syndicates in crisis countries from using global respect and admiration for antiquities as a recruitment or fundraising opportunity.  We can protect our national security interests and protect Americans from buying crisis antiquities by directing and empowering our field public diplomacy officers – officers already assigned to engage with educational and cultural institutions around the world — to initiate talks and deliver bilateral cultural property agreements and by asking Treasury to routinely sanction antiquities trading when implementing other crisis sanctions.

Second, with agreements in place and as a strategy for building partnerships with other countries that openly work with us, our field public diplomacy officers should then explore other avenues of cultural cooperation, for example, using our academic and professional exchanges to creatively connect and build partnerships between foreign antiquities ministry officials, scholars and experts with America’s extraordinary academics and institutions.

Finally, because there may never be enough money or will to protect or repair the world’s cultural and ethnological treasures, we can at least put American diplomacy at the center of advocacy for public-private partnerships that can link governments, NGOs and arts institutions around the world to help preserve and protect some of these sites. This work would most appropriately managed by the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center in cooperation with the relevant regional bureaus.

The United States is in a position to protect both our national security interests and our values by developing and adopting a new foreign policy on cultural heritage.  Fortunately, there are extraordinary American scholars and institutions, leading NGOs, the presidentially-appointed Cultural Property Advisory Commission, and outstanding State Department staff prepared for action. I am confident that this is an area for diplomatic action where we can be enormously successful, with both immediate and long-term benefits for the United States.End.

For more on the work of ECA’s Cultural Heritage Center:


Larry Schwartz recently retired from the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.  He served over 34 years in public diplomacy assignments in Washington and at overseas posts including Brussels, Islamabad, Davao City, Pretoria, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

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