Congress considers cultural property protection czar post

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A new bill seeks to block looted Syrian artefacts from entering the country

The Islamic State allegedly permits the widespread ransacking of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq and then cashes in by levying a tax on looters operating within its territory. Here, Free Syrian Army fighters walk in the Umayyad mosque of Old Aleppo, 15 December 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Molhem Barakat

A new bill introduced in Washington, DC last week seeks to block looted Syrian cultural heritage from entering the US. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act asks Congress to appoint a cultural property protection czar and establish emergency import restrictions to protect endangered cultural patrimony. The bill aims to “deny terrorists and criminals the ability to profit from instability by looting the world of its greatest treasures,” says the congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, in a statement. Engel is co-sponsoring the legislation with Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey.

Black market sales of looted cultural objects are the largest source of funding for the Islamic State after oil, according to Newsweek. The group allegedly permits the widespread ransacking of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq and then cashes in by levying a tax on looters operating within its territory. American imports of Syrian cultural property rose 145% between 2011 and 2013, according to a report by the cultural heritage lawyer Rick St Hilaire.

The US bill would establish a new post, a cultural property protection czar, who would coordinate among federal agencies to enforce existing regulations, provide policy recommendations and collaborate with foreign governments, museums and educational institutions to promote the protection of international cultural property. High-ranking government officials, including the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, would be required to submit reports to the czar about their efforts to safeguard threatened cultural heritage.

The proposal is largely focused on more efficiently and consistently enforcing existing laws rather than creating new ones. At least one country has gone even further in its attempt to curb looting long-term. Last month, Germany’s culture minister proposed legislation that would require all cultural goods to have an official export license from their country of origin in order to cross the border.

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