“Threat and Trends: The Traffic and Illicit Trade of Cultural Property for Terrorist Purposes”

On Wednesday, 7 September 2022, the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) held a virtual roundtable on the traffic and illicit trade of cultural property for terrorist purposes, organized in close collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations.

The roundtable brought together experts in the field of cultural heritage protection and investigation of trafficking of cultural property from civil society and academia, to discuss the terrorist dimension of the issue, elaborating on its current scope, scale and defining trends.

Experts underscored the observed scale and intensity of the phenomenon. Professor Amr Al-Azm, Archeologist and Professor of Middle East History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio, detailed the way in which terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) institutionalized the looting and illicit sale of artefacts as an important source of revenue. He recalled the impact of the destruction of cultural heritage and the illicit trade on local communities, and the key role that civil society continues to play in preserving and protecting cultural heritage.

Dr. Louise Shelley, Professor at Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and director of Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC), drew attention to the global scale of the illicit trade, from source, transit and destination countries, and elaborated on the linkages observed with other illicit flows. Dr. Shelley emphasized the need for all art market participants to exercise due diligence, and for experts in cultural heritage protection and art law specialists to support investigations and prosecution efforts.

Ms. Katie Paul, Anthropologist and Co-director of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) project, shed light on the digital dimension of the trade, noting the way in which social media platforms can be exploited by terrorists to advance the illicit trade of cultural property. She recalled the critical role that social media platforms and technology companies can play in both facilitating and addressing the illicit trade in digital marketplaces, and the importance of States efforts in upholding corporate liability in this space.

Ms. Antonia David, Legal Program Manager at The Docket, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, elaborated on different investigative approaches and legal avenues available to prosecute individuals associated with the illicit trade of cultural property, including for complicity in serious crimes under international law, particularly war crimes and crimes against humanity, and terrorism financing.

Cecilia Naddeo, a Legal and Criminal Justice Coordinator, CTED said: “CTED is uniquely positioned to engage Member States, on behalf of the Counter Terrorism Committee, as they reflect upon promising practices, as well as untapped opportunities, to further international cooperation in the investigation, prosecution, seizure, confiscation, as well as the return, restitution and repatriation of illicitly traded cultural property.”

Building on the findings of the roundtable, CTED is looking to further its engagement on the topic with Member States, United Nations partners and relevant stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector, to explore gaps in Member States’ responses, ongoing challenges for furthering international cooperation and best practices related to preventing and countering the illicit trade and trafficking of cultural property for terrorist purposes at a national, regional and international level.